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Teamwork to check formal requirements and eligibility for funding

29 May 2017

The Academy’s funding application process involves several stages. Although it may sometimes seem like a long wait for the applicant, there are good reasons for the time it takes to process the applications. The three main stages in the application process are checking and verification; assessment and review; and the research council’s funding decision. Senior Science Adviser Aki Salo from the Health Research Unit explains what happens in the first stage of the application process.

“Checking and verification involves making sure that the applications meet all of the formal requirements and eligibility criteria. This is very much a team effort between Academy officials, unit secretaries and science advisers, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the latter, the presenting officials, to ascertain the eligibility for funding,” Salo explains.

There is a set checklist for verifying the applications. Key checklist items include the eligibility of the applicant, requirements specific to each funding instrument and the integrity of the application, that is the readability of the text, figures and appendices. If there are any problems regarding eligibility, the secretaries and presenting officials will together check whether there are grounds for rejecting the application.

In the event of any omissions in the application, the Academy will contact the applicant to request additional information. Finally, the Academy will contact the applicant’s university or other host organisation to ensure their approval of the application. If the application requires no further clarifications, the applicant will receive an automatic message from the Academy’s online services once the host organisation’s approval has come through.

Salo says it takes about three weeks to check and verify the applications. That’s good going compared to the other stages of the application process, yet there could still be scope for improvement. Salo says he has been toying with the idea of an automated checking procedure.

“But of course we’d need to make sure this would be permissible. After all, if there were any issues at all with the application, it would be rejected out of hand. We’d probably have to manually review every rejected application in any case, so in reality we might be looking at a marginal time saving at best,” Salo continues.

For the time being, then, every application is checked by a human expert. This obviously takes time because each unit receives several hundreds of applications. Salo insists there are sound reasons why the application process takes as long as it does.

“The application process is governed by legal considerations. The careful and detailed review of every application ensures that all applicants receive equal treatment. The Academy’s processes have been fine-tuned for years, and I’m sure they stand up to international scrutiny.”

Panel review reports are an important decision tool

In the second stage of the application process, every application is assessed and reviewed by panels of international experts. These panels’ review reports are important tools in the Academy’s subsequent decision-making. Work to assemble the panels begins while the applications are still being checked and verified. This task is entrusted to the Academy’s science advisers: to make sure that each application in their field receives equal treatment, they will undertake the crucial role of organising a balanced panel composition.

“The science adviser’s aim is to find a panel composition that is the best mix for all parties concerned. The review reports prepared by the panels are a very important tool for the research councils,” says Senior Science Adviser Hannele Kurki from the Culture and Society Research Unit.

Science advisers at different units can prepare for the task of assembling the panels in different ways. For the Health Research Unit, for example, it is possible to plan the panel composition well ahead of time, whereas the Culture and Society Research Unit has to see the applications first: only then can decisions be made how many panels are structured around research fields and how many around research phenomena.

“The science adviser will look at the balance of subjects represented in the applications, and on this basis aim to put together a panel that’ll ensure all applications get the best possible expert assessment. It’s not always possible to cover every minor research field, but in this case we can go to an outside expert who’s not on the panel and ask for a dedicated review.”

The Culture and Society Research Unit currently has ten science advisers, each with responsibility for one to three research fields. One science adviser has charge of 1–5 panels. The job of searching out the right experts for different panels is extremely challenging. Kurki compares the task to a jigsaw puzzle.

“Ideally, you’ll want to have a balanced mix of generalists and specialists of different ages, and both men and women. It’s also important for panellists to have good social skills because, ultimately, working on a panel is an exercise in human interaction. Assembling the perfect panel is really a huge challenge.”

In practice, all reviewers come from outside Finland. To find the best panel experts, the science advisers consult various databases and a dedicated databank on experts with a proven track record. Panellist candidates are also found in connection with CoE and other calls and by following the review panels of international research funding agencies. All reviewers are carefully vetted with a view to potential grounds for disqualification.

Hannele Kurki says it is an ongoing effort to expand the pool of experts used: “Members of research councils can also put forward names from their own fields of expertise and their own networks as potential expert members. In some funding instruments, even the applicants themselves can recommend qualified experts.”

Although the same experts may be recruited as panellists several times, the panel compositions nonetheless vary each year. No two panels are ever exactly the same, and new blood is always introduced to replace panellists who have been involved more than a couple of times. One of the challenges in assembling panels, Kurki says, lies in the growth of interdisciplinarity and new breakthroughs, which has led to different Academy units setting up joint panels.

“The range of subjects covered in research plans is extremely diverse, and boundary lines between research disciplines are constantly shifting. It’s impossible to pigeonhole research into set categories or classifications, but increasingly research themes are phenomena-based,” Kurki concludes.

During the process, applicants can follow the status of their application via the same online service where the application is filed: the system will show whether the application is pending or has been decided. Once the application has passed the initial checks and found to meet the formal requirements, it is taken up for review. This is the longest stage of the application process, in which the panel of experts assesses and reviews all the applications filed. The applicant can expect a final decision by the projected date indicated in the system.

Read the other articles in this series: Senior Science AdviserJuha Latikka from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Unit discusses the second stage of the application process and Chair of the Research Council for Culture and Society Anneli Anttonen describes the council’s role in the third stage of the decision process.

Last modified 29 May 2017
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