The Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Health is very pleased with the results of the high-risk funding trial it carried out in 2014–2016, says Professor Mika Rämet, the Chair of the Research Council. Within the trial, the Research Council first funded ten highly rated projects for a short term. The applications had been hand-picked from among non-funded, high-risk applications submitted during the Academy’s September 2014 call. The projects went through a midterm evaluation, which determined whether their funding would be continued.
The first 16-month funding period was aimed at supporting the projects by taking into account their scientific risk-taking. The researchers were supported by international reviewers’ assessments of their research plans and by recommendations on how the projects could be further improved.
Nine projects applied for continued funding after the first period. The tenth project had already received Academy Project funding and did not therefore apply for continued funding from the Research Council for Health. The projects that did apply went through an international peer review process. The reviewers assessed nearly all of the applications to be very competitive and some were seen as having become stronger thanks to their elements of scientific risk-taking. Continued funding was eventually granted to six projects.
Shorter funding for high-risk projects
“As funding for research becomes increasingly scarce and the competition becomes tougher, funders tend to go for the safe bets. However, significant scientific breakthroughs often emerge from unexpected discoveries that are based on excellent basic research as well as reasonable risk-taking. Risk-taking is also very important for science renewal,” Rämet says.
“There is a risk that funders choose to support projects that have already produced several publications. This may leave the really innovative projects that challenge mainstream approaches without funding.”
According to Rämet, the trial showed that high-risk projects could be funded for two instead of four years, for example. Two years would give researchers enough time to experiment and the funding agency could then better assess whether to continue the funding.
In future, the Research Council for Health will aim to better recognise high-risk projects with huge potential. This will not necessarily require a dedicated funding scheme, Rämet says, but a mindset where the Research Council will pay particular attention to high-risk projects within the framework of the Academy’s core funding opportunities.
New Academy Programme well underway
The high-risk funding trial has inspired the Academy of Finland to launch a new Academy Programme called Health from Science. The programme’s first-stage call will open in April 2017.
“The aim of the programme is to encourage Finnish researchers to seek bold, new research initiatives that can solve health issues related to major public health diseases. The scope is deliberately wide in order to increase the competition and so improve the quality of funded projects,” Rämet explains.
The Academy is looking to fund daring and innovative projects that move beyond the mainstream and that can produce high impact for public health. The review of applications will place particular emphasis on the cornerstones of the Academy’s strategy: quality, impact and renewal.
The programme will be funded jointly with the Finnish Brain Foundation, the Foundation for Pediatric Research, the Finnish Medical Foundation and the Cancer Foundation. By cooperating with foundations, the Academy aims to achieve a more extensive funding base and increase the grant amounts. The funding can be applied for by consortia consisting of at least two research teams representing at least three research fields.
How will the new programme then aim to realise the impact required by the Academy’s strategy? The goal, Rämet says, is to pick research projects that will try to solve major public health problems. “The programme aims to seek out important health topics in order to allow for more potential impact. On the other hand, impact can also arise from targeting research activities at a specific disease, which typically also leads to improved care results.”
The risks Rämet is referring to are linked to science renewal. The Health from Science programme encourages high-risk research designs where the risks should be motivated in terms of potentially significant effects on the promotion of public health. In order to receive funding, the projects must involve open-minded approaches at the frontiers of knowledge – they must not be continuations of existing projects.
“Venturing into unbroken snow is rarely the better or faster route, but it may take you into new territory,” Rämet says.
Projects funded under the high-risk pilot scheme:
- Anamaria Balic: Generation of tooth enamel and whole teeth from stem cells in vitro and in vivo
- Kristiina Huttunen: Targeted and controlled release prodrugs of neuroprotective agents
- Leena Kontturi: Light-triggered and pH-sensitive liposomes with gold nanoparticles for posterior eye drug delivery
- Cecilia Sahlgren: Spatial control of the Notch ligand Jagged in vascular tissue homeostasis and tumorigenesis
- Emmy Verschuren: Modelling lung tumour cell signalling network sensitivities
- Maritta Välimäki: The effectiveness of user-driven intervention to manage patient violence in mental health services
Original Finnish text by Leena Vähäkylä
Photo by Kari Likonen