Expert group recommends overhaul of research funding

An expert group appointed by the government has proposed to change the procedures on how research funding from the Research Council of Norway is distributed and to cut the administrative budget of the research council by NOK80 million (US$9.6 million).

The gist of the expert group recommendations is that scientific quality has to be given a higher priority and that the regulations and administration of the distribution of funds have to be simplified.

The three-person expert group was headed by Siri Hatlen, chair of the board of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Norwegian Board of Technology. Other members were Kari Melby, pro-rector for research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, and Erik Arnold, chair of the Technopolis group.

The report was delivered to the Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Finance on 7 February.

The expert group was established in June 2016 and had a mandate to examine and propose changes in the distribution of funding from the Research Council of Norway and also to investigate if the administrative costing of the council’s activities could be made more effective.

The expert group said that Norwegian research over the past decades has developed positively, both with regard to citations and peer reviews, but there is still room for improvement in quality.

Norwegian research is cited less often than that from the leading research nations Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. There is a need to have more Norwegian researchers among the leaders in their field internationally and at the same time increase the overall quality of Norwegian research, the group said.

“Too many competitive objectives at different levels in our research policy are weakening the prioritising of high scientific quality and are reducing the effectiveness in the system with regard to promoting quality. The need for high scientific quality has to have more weight than today,” the group said.

The administrative costs of the research council are estimated at NOK786 million (US$94 million) for 2016, up from NOK338 million in 2004. In 2015 the council had 130 more staff members than in 2004, and the expert group is estimating that numbers can be cut by around 40 staff members.

The salaries of top-level directors are high by Norwegian standards. The outgoing CEO Arvid Hallén has an annual salary of NOK2.25 million, significantly higher than the Norwegian prime minister’s and NOK650,000 more than the rector of the University of Oslo. The average annual salary of the five top research council directors is NOK1.74 million while the Norwegian prime minister has an annual salary of NOK1.6 million.

The research council distributes about 27% of total government research funding in Norway, approximately NOK8.9 billion (US$1 billion). Some 64% of the research budgets of higher education institutions is allocated from the government, while 17% comes from the research council.

In addition to the research component in the government budget going directly to the research council, the ministries to a varying degree also allocate funds to research, some of this to the research council, some to the universities and some to other institutions.

“In total more than 500 objectives and budgetary instructions are hence sent to the Research Council of Norway each year,” the expert group noted, warning that this is contributing to a non-transparent system with regard to the prioritisation of high-quality science.

Most ministries are satisfied with the present system of research distribution where some of their funding is awarded to the research council, some to research institutions directly and some allocated after announcements for tender, but the expert group says the quality approach to research is hampered by this differentiated system and that greater national coordination is needed.

In the governing structure of the research council, the expert group says, there is an extensive representation from ministries, universities, business, industry and others on the governing boards and committees, where in total 604 persons are represented.

The governing bodies oversee more than 100 different support schemes of which 60 are awarded in competition and of these two-thirds are in thematic-oriented research programmes.

The council uses a seven-grade evaluation scale, where one is the lowest.

In an analysis of 6,194 applications sent in during 2014 and 2015, 73% received the score 1-5, and 27% received 6 or 7. Some 4,835 applications were not awarded, and of these 13% or 652 applications received the score 6 or 7, while 329 applications with a score 5 or lower were funded.

“For most programmes scientific quality is an important criterion,” the expert group says, “but this quality is not weighted. And since the definition of quality is not necessarily the same across the programmes, it is difficult to compare the scoring across the programmes.”

Low success rate

The expert group said that the large number of applications and hence low application success rate to some programmes is a potential challenge, and is recommending that the research council should work in collaboration with research institutions to find ways to reduce the number of weak applications.

The group also proposes to make a ‘shadow list’ of applications awarded scores of 6 and 7 that are not funded in the different programmes and have these funded from a reserve earmarked fund.

The expert group is in particular recommending that some of the thematic programmes which today have small budgets with strong regulations on which research should be supported are significantly reduced in favour of more open programmes that “will more easily incorporate new problem formulations, new methods and new perspectives”.

The expert group thinks that it should be possible to reduce the number of thematic application based programmes by half.

The group was assisted by an extensive secretariat from several ministries and has produced a wealth of information on Norwegian research not previously gathered in such a detail.

The board of the Research Council of Norway has discussed the proposal and is in agreement that quality should be the guiding parameter for the distribution of funds from the council. But the proposal of the expert group to redistribute more funding to open research proposals “will necessarily redistribute funds to free research in disfavour of thematic research that has been decided through democratic processes”.

The board of the research council does not approve of the cut in administrative costs of NOK80 million and proposes that the consequences of this cut be investigated by a ‘risk assessment’ expert group.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said upon receiving the report that it will be used in the government budgetary process for the 2018 budget.

Marianne Aasen, the spokeswoman for the Labour Party in opposition, said that the report ought to be sent to the parliament for discussions before being used by the government, notably because there is a general election in September 2017.