The Academy of Finland funds researchers at different stages of the research career. The Academy divides the research career into four distinct stages. Of these, the Academy’s funding is targeted at the three latter stages, that is, at postdoctoral researchers, independent research professionals and professors.
The first stage usually consists of young researchers working on their doctoral dissertation, for example, in doctoral programmes, in projects run by more experienced researchers, or in Centres of Excellence funded by the Academy of Finland. As a rule, the Academy does not fund first-stage researchers, except when they are involved in Academy-funded research projects. Otherwise, researchers at the first stage of the research career ladder receive funding from universities, research institutes or foundations.
The Academy does fund researchers at the second career stage, the postdoctoral stage, such as through its funding for research posts as Postdoctoral Researcher. The three-year Postdoctoral Researcher grants are intended for researchers who have completed their doctorate no more than four years ago. There are also postdoctoral researchers that are funded through their host universities or through foundations. In projects funded by the Academy of Finland, the Academy’s funding is primarily intended for researchers with a doctorate.
“The number of Academy-funded Postdoctoral Researchers is not fixed. Each research council at the Academy is given a specific budget authority for Postdoctoral Researcher grants and Academy Research Fellow grants,” explains Science Adviser Sanna Marjavaara, who heads the research career working group at the Academy. The budget authority provides the framework in which the research councils can decide on how they want to distribute the funds.
The number of applicants for Postdoctoral Researcher grants has risen steadily over the past few years. Now, the success rate hovers around 10 per cent or even lower. Marjavaara says this is very close to the pain threshold. 2016 marked the first year in a long time that the number of applicants decreased. Marjavaara estimates that this may have been a result of the layoffs at Finnish universities and the Academy of Finland’s updated eligibility requirements. The Academy introduced a mobility criterion, which requires applicants to have at least six months of experience of working in another research environment. The staff cuts at universities have forced many young researchers to seek employment elsewhere. They may find themselves in a situation where they lack a site of research that could enable them to apply for Postdoctoral Researcher grants from the Academy.
“Now, sites of research will very carefully consider to which projects they will commit funding. Things have changed, and not all projects will get a commitment from their sites of research. Pledging money to a research project is after all a huge investment for universities,” says Marjavaara. There have already been cases where Academy-funded researchers have been left without a site of research when research institutes have discontinued some of their programmes.
Academy Research Fellow grants help researchers set up their own teams
The third research career stage consists of independent researchers at the level of associate professors and university lecturers. The Academy of Finland funds third-stage researchers with its Academy Research Fellow grants or with Academy Project funding. Third-stage researchers can be included in their university’s tenure track system. Each year, the Academy funds approximately 60 new Academy Research Fellows. The funding also includes a research cost grant that allows the Academy Research Fellows to set up their own research teams. The amount of the research cost grant may vary between research councils. The application success rate for Academy Research Fellow grants has stood at 10 per cent for quite a long time.
“The success rate is quite low, but our analyses show that the number of Academy Research Fellows is at a fairly good level – after all, we’re talking about total investments often worth a million euros per researcher,” says Marjavaara. She points out that the funding for a research post as Academy Research Fellow is a significant career boost – most Academy Research Fellows later go on to become professors.
University of Helsinki researcher Henna Tyynismaa is one of the researchers who have received an Academy Research Fellow grant directly after their Postdoctoral Researcher grant. In fact, her funding periods overlapped slightly. At present, she is a coordinator in a project of the Academy Programme Personalised Health – From Genes to Society (pHealth).
“I would not be an active researcher now had I not received funding from the Academy of Finland. The Postdoctoral Researcher grant allowed me to go on a research visit to London and the Academy Research Fellow grant made me a more independent researcher,” says Tyynismaa.
Funding through all four stages possible
The fourth stage of the research career model is the professor stage. At this stage, the Academy of Finland offers funding in the form of Academy Project funding, Academy Professor grants or Centre of Excellence funding.
Professor Johanna Mappes from the University of Jyväskylä is living proof that an individual researcher can indeed get Academy funding for all four research career stages. Mappes earned her doctorate in 1994 and received postdoctoral funding from the Academy a year later. Immediately after that she was appointed to a research post as Academy Research Fellow. While holding the post, Mappes won the first ever Incentive Award by the Academy of Finland. She received a professorship in evolutionary ecology in 2008 and an Academy Professorship for 2009–2013. At present, she heads an Academy-funded Centre of Excellence. She has also received project-based funding from the Academy.
“I’m very grateful to be a major consumer of Academy research funding. I wouldn’t be where I am today in my career without the Academy’s funding. I do basic research, and the Academy is the most important funding agency for basic research in Finland. Of course, funding from foundations and university scholarships has played an important role, too,” says Mappes.
Academy funds also help in securing external funding
The Academy of Finland is keen to encourage researchers to apply for funding from other sources as well. The Academy has, for example, organised training sessions to help researchers apply for funding from the European Research Council (ERC). Many Academy Research Fellows have successfully applied for ERC funding. The Academy also promotes the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA), which enable researchers to go abroad to do research. The MSCA scheme is also a way for research team leaders to invite top-level researchers to Finland. MSCA grants can be applied for by researchers even before they have earned their doctorate.
Henna Tyynismaa and Mikko Möttönen from Aalto University have both received ERC funding while they were Academy Research Fellows. Tyynismaa is convinced that the Academy Research Fellow grant was the decisive factor that helped her get ERC funding. The ERC funding will help her move forwards in the tenure track system. Mikko Möttönen, in turn, is a three-time ERC grant winner.
Möttönen kicked off his postdoctoral career with mobility funding from the Academy of Finland and a stint at the University of California, Berkeley. The Academy awarded him a Postdoctoral Researcher grant in 2007 and funding for a research post as Academy Research Fellow in 2010. He now works as a team leader in the Centre of Excellence for Computational Nanoscience. In September 2016, he also received funding from the Academy under the new key project funding scheme.
“For me, it’s been important that I’ve been able to apply for Academy funding even as a young researcher. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have earned my academic stripes on my own terms. Now that I’ve finished my Academy Research Fellow project, I’ve tried to apply for funding for a research post as Academy Profesor. That would be the next big step in my career that I need. Now, as the Academy of Finland is in the process of reconfiguring its Academy Professor funding scheme, I’m excited to see what lies ahead. Maybe the new scheme will include a more in-depth review process,” says Möttönen.
Foreign researchers on equal footing with Finnish researchers
If foreign researchers manage to get into a Finnish research team, they have the same opportunities as their Finnish colleagues when it comes to securing funding from the Academy of Finland. Sanna Marjavaara says that the two things that matter are the quality of the research and how the research benefits Finland. The proportion of foreign researchers funded by the Academy corresponds to the proportion of foreign applicants.
French researcher Goëry Genty is a professor at Tampere University of Technology (TUT). Genty initially came to Finland to the former Helsinki University of Technology (HUT, now Aalto University) as a summer student in 1997. After completing his MSc degree, he was offered a PhD position at HUT, and he never went back. He was lucky enough to get funding for a research post as Postdoctoral Researcher and then immediately following that an Academy Research Fellow grant, which enabled him to set up his own team. In 2012, he was appointed as associate professor by TUT within the framework of the university’s tenure track system. In addition, he has received several Academy grants, both within the Academy Programme Photonics and Modern Imaging Techniques (2010–2013) and from the general calls.
“Funding from the Academy of Finland has been paramount for my research career, allowing me to start and maintain my own research group. It’s given me the opportunity to explore unconventional paths that have allowed me to stay at the forefront of research in photonics, my research field for the last 15 years,” says Genty.
The story of William Hennah, Englishman and Academy Research Fellow, follows the old boy-meets-girl formula. Originally, he started studying for a bachelor´s degree in zoology at King’s College London. During the first year, however, he decided to change fields to molecular genetics, only to later move on to neuroscience and psychiatric genetics. During that time he met a Finnish girl who would later became his wife. While working in London at the Institute of Psychiatry, he was offered the chance to pursue his doctoral studies in Helsinki in Academician Leena Peltonen-Paloties’s group on schizophrenia genetics. So he moved to Finland in 2000, and completed his doctoral thesis in 2005 at the age of 29. After his doctorate he was awarded an EMBO long-term research fellowship for two years at the University of Edinburgh. Then he was granted a Postdoctoral Researcher grant by the Academy of Finland, and so he returned to Helsinki to work at the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM) on Peltonen-Palotie’s team. After Peltonen-Palotie passed away, Hennah started to work more independently. This move to independence was later facilitated by an Academy of Finland Research Fellowship.
“The Academy Research Fellow grant has provided me with the means to make the step-up to starting my own group and start establishing myself into Finnish academic life,” he explains. Over the years, he has received additional external funding from Finnish research foundations and the Marie Curie Initial Training Network programme. This has further helped him to establish new networks for international collaborations.
Text by Leena Vähäkylä
Pictures by Pekka Kiirala and Anita Westerback