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Successful joint European research on religion as a social force

12th June 2012

The NORFACE ERA-NET (New Opportunities for Research Funding Agency Co-operation in Europe) was a partnership between European research councils to increase funding cooperation in the social sciences. Running between 2007 and 2010, NORFACE brought together twelve national funding agencies to launch the research programme Relemerge, Re-emergence of Religion as a Social Force in Europe, which was coordinated by the Academy of Finland. Among other things, Relemerge was focused on examining the rising significance of religion. The goal was to create true cross-border research collaboration and coordination between the projects funded through the programme. According to a recent evaluation report published by the Research Council of Norway, Relemerge was successfully implemented and accomplished its goals very well.

Benefits to all partner countries

The 2006 two-stage call of the Relemerge programme involved some 60 proposals, of which 26 made it to the final stage. Funding was awarded to the ten best-reviewed projects. In addition, the programme funded two capacity-building projects, which benefited members of all projects. In all, the funded projects included researchers from ten NORFACE countries. The total funding, altogether EUR 5.4 million, was pooled through a common-pot model.

“The idea of a common pot is that each partner commits to a certain funding contribution based on population and GDP per capita, and this is done even before the projects to be funded are selected. This is a way to ensure that the funds go to the best-reviewed projects. So, it’s possible that the national common-pot contribution doesn’t go to the country’s own researchers but to a consortium of researchers from another country, for instance. In Relemerge, this happened in the case of Estonia and Iceland,” explains Academy of Finland Science Adviser Satu Huuha-Cissokho, who was in charge of programme coordination.

“On the other hand, all partner countries benefited from the programme’s scientific coordination, so they did get their money’s worth. The common pot was an effective way to commit all parties to advancing a common agenda.”

Key observations

According to the evaluation panel that assessed the achievements of the Relemerge programme, the programme was successful in attracting projects characterised by scientific excellence. This was facilitated by the fact that the theme of the call was broad and that researchers were invited to create their own research questions. However, in its report, the panel does criticise the tight call schedule, which may have deterred some excellent researchers from applying. The panel therefore strongly recommends that the time span between call and deadline be extended, to enable the thorough dissemination of information throughout the relevant research communities and to maximise the chances that the best researchers will participate in the call. In addition, the panel recommends that capacity-building projects in future programmes concentrate on capacity building in the substantive area of the programme.

The cooperation within NORFACE, the panel says, helped stimulate excellent scientific research, develop a European research community, and tackle themes of importance to European public policy. Compared to a national programme, it was more flexible in funding international cooperation and more efficient in generating international visibility.

When it comes to documentation and reporting, the panel noted that future programmes should ensure that there is full documentation of all stages of the process. After all, Relemerge was a pilot programme, from which funding agencies would want to gain insights for their own activities.

Valuable lessons learned

The Academy of Finland was responsible for all of the administration regarding the programme and its projects up to the end of the programme. The Academy prepared the call, managed the review of proposals, controlled the common pot and administered the funding. In addition, the researchers reported on their projects directly to the Academy. Although this was very resource-intensive for the Academy, having only one responsible agency significantly lightened the load for the researchers.

“There’s no ready-made model for these kinds of international calls, so cross-border collaboration and planning is very important indeed. We decided to make good use of the Academy’s proven methods and rules, and modify them to fit the special features of NORFACE. We also worked hard to create new ways of working with officials across countries. This all resulted in a fairly well-oiled machine,” Huuha-Cissokho says.

Overall, the Academy’s experiences of the Relemerge programme are very positive. The two-stage call worked very well and there was much to learn from the entire process. Based on the lessons learned, the Academy is well equipped to further develop its own processes and practices.

According to Huuha-Cissokho, the common-pot model was considered to be so successful that it was later expanded. “Based on the success of the Relemerge programme, it was quite easy to get the partner countries to participate in funding NORFACE’s full-scale transnational research programme in 2008, Migration in Europe – Social, Economic, Cultural and Policy Dynamics.”

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Text by Terhi Loukiainen

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