Revised and adopted in 2015, the Academy of Finland’s strategy underscores the importance of the quality, impact and renewal of science and research. We interviewed Professor Heikki Ruskoaho, Chair of the Board of the Academy of Finland, to find out how the implementation of the strategy is progressing. Based on the three key elements of quality, impact and renewal, all current Academy funding opportunities are set for a thorough examination and will be amended where necessary.
“Non-earmarked funding – such as Academy Project funding and Postdoctoral Researcher, Academy Research Fellow and Academy Professor grants – will continue to play a fundamental role in the Academy’s funding palette. We must take particular care to secure funding for early-career researchers,” Ruskoaho said.
CoE funding call put emphasis on collaboration
“For instance, quality was a visible criterion for applications selected to the second stage of the Centre of Excellence call. In the CoE call, greater attention has also been given to ensuring that there’s genuine collaboration between research teams and that the collaboration produces added value. In other words, the researchers have a joint problem that they’ll try to solve by working together. In this round of the CoE call, we’ll also focus more on impact beyond academia,” Ruskoaho said.
Altogether 34 applications successfully proceeded to the second stage of the CoE call. The new centres, which will start in 2018, will be granted more long-term funding than in previous CoE programmes.
“The new CoEs will be funded for eight years. They’ll go through a full scientific evaluation after the first four years. The outcome of the evaluation will then determine the level of funding for the remaining period. The revised programme format is a way to facilitate longer-term research. Eight years is an exceptionally long funding period, even internationally,” Ruskoaho said.
Ruskoaho estimates that about one-third of the applications will receive funding after the second stage of the CoE call. The call closes on 1 February 2017.
Positive experiences from key project funding scheme
The Academy of Finland’s April 2016 call included a special ‘key project’ funding scheme targeted at early-career researchers. It was the most popular funding opportunity in the call, attracting a total of 598 applications. In September 2016, the Academy granted funding to 101 projects.
“I was very pleased at both the number and quality of applications submitted. If this call is anything to go by, Finland clearly hosts a generation of talented researchers that are able to respond to the demands of these kinds of calls,” Ruskoaho said.
The call was designed to emulate the Proof of Concept model used by the European Research Council (ERC): applicants were asked to assess the innovation potential and societal impact of their research.
“We received good-quality applications in all research fields, but it seems that the call’s approach was perhaps best suited to applicants in the fields of engineering, natural sciences and biomedicine. The best applicants had of course extensive international experience as well. Even in an instrument such as the key project funding scheme, the description of research methods is the most important aspect. To be successful, applicants had to very carefully read the call text and describe their research,” Ruskoaho said.
According to Ruskoaho, a call such as the key project funding scheme suits the Academy very well. It also included a focus on promoting research utilisation. “High-quality research is an absolute requirement for research utilisation. The research should also explore whether a method or treatment, for instance, can be put to good use.”
Increasing number of early-career researchers, stiffer competition – growing need for support
“We’re witnessing the emergence of an ever-greater generation of early-career researchers who will find it increasingly difficult to secure funding for their research. From the perspective of science self-renewal, it’s extremely important that we find ways to support this group of researchers. We have to thank the powers that be that the Academy of Finland has been allocated additional funds to support them,” Ruskoaho said.
The Academy’s 2017 budget authority contains an appropriation of an additional 30 million euros ring-fenced for early-career researchers. The Academy’s research councils will distribute the funds through the Academy Project and Postdoctoral Researcher funding instruments.
Ruskoaho added: “As a provider of competitive research funding, the Academy helps Finnish universities and research institutes to source the most talented researchers from the new generation and to ensure that they can continue their research in the future as well.”
Ruskoaho also noted that though universities highly value ERC-funded researchers as well as young Academy Research Fellows, they should further support them through their tenure-track systems or otherwise. “Even if the universities cannot guarantee funding for everyone, it would be very important to make sure that researchers who have been successful in major funding calls can continue their research in the future as well."
According to Ruskoaho, there is clearly a need for more permanent forms of support for early-career researchers. He would therefore like to see continued research funding for the early-career researchers that received funding under the key project funding scheme.
Structure and work of Academy research councils to be reassessed
The Academy’s Administration Office is working very hard to overhaul the Academy’s funding instruments in keeping with the strategic objectives. Ruskoaho says the implementation of the Academy’s strategy will require a rethink of both funding instruments, review practices and established structures – based on the key strategic objectives of quality, impact and renewal.
The Academy is also mulling over a re-examination of how the Academy’s research councils work. An in-house working group report that examines the research councils was published recently. The report describes the current state of the Academy’s research councils’ work as well as the role of the various actors involved. The report is part of the implementation of the Academy’s strategy. The Board of the Academy examined the report in its meeting in December 2016. During the drafting of the report, there were extensive discussions between the working group and various stakeholders. The report also analyses international benchmarks.
The working group’s report (Toimikuntatyön kehittäminen – Työryhmän raportti keskustelun pohjaksi Suomen Akatemian toimikuntien työn tarkastelemista varten) is available on the Academy’s website in Finnish. An English-language version will be published in January 2017.