Joona Lehtomäki and Milja Saari are science advisers in the Strategic Research Unit at the Academy of Finland.
The projects funded by the Strategic Research Council (SRC) have received their first interim reviews. What have the first consortia, launched in 2015, accomplished so far? What can we conclude from the progress of the projects, their quality of research and the extent and impact of their societal interaction? According to the results, the SRC consortia have had substantial success during the first two years. Researchers of the consortia have produced high-quality and multidisciplinary research, interacted with stakeholders and communicated exceptionally actively with the general public.
Research funded by the SRC is expected to provide solutions to serious issues, caused by our society and its transitions, that can only be understood with a multidisciplinary approach and through cooperation between many different types of actors. Research that supports decision-making requires, from the outset, close collaboration with stakeholders and consensus over the primary objectives.
The SRC has a legal and strong obligation to monitor its funded research projects and assess their impact. In the case of six-year strategic research programmes, the end of the first funding period serves as the interim review point for monitoring the consortia and assessing their impact. The 16 consortia launched with the initial strategic research programmes reached this interim review point in autumn 2017. The consortia are part of one of three programmes: Disruptive Technologies and Changing Institutions, A Climate-Neutral and Resource-Scarce Finland, and Equality in Society.
In August, the science advisers of the Strategic Research Unit provided summary material to the SRC for its interim review. The material collected by the consortia consisted of quantitative output indicators and qualitative interaction case studies. Neither of these monitoring tools developed by the Strategic Research Unit can alone provide sufficient information on the extent and depth of the scientific and interactive functions of the consortia; instead, they must be evaluated together. The interim review and its results are discussed in two blog articles. This article focuses on the quantitative output indicators. The next article in the series will describe interaction narratives produced by the consortia.
Frequent publications and active, multidisciplinary research
During their first funding period, the strategic research consortia have made significant accomplishments. Their researchers have produced high-quality and multidisciplinary research, interacted with stakeholders and communicated exceptionally actively with the general public.
The most traditional and reliable indicator of scientific results is the number of scientific, particularly peer-reviewed publications, and the quality of their publication channels. The SRC-funded researchers have been involved in 442 scientific publications. Publication numbers vary between the consortia, as some have begun their operation by producing substantial amounts of literature and cooperating extensively with stakeholders. Publication activity is expected to increase during the second funding period (2018–2021).
As the research funded by SRC is multidisciplinary, the consortia have, in part, been selected to the programmes precisely due to the multidisciplinary nature of their research and interaction plans. The realisation of a multidisciplinary approach is evident in the quantitative data collected from the consortia: more than half (280) of domestic and international publications have authors representing two or more disciplines. A majority (79%) of the publications are also open access.
One of the objectives in strategic research is also its capacity for renewal. This is supported by, for example, the mobility of researchers. The consortia have already carried out 249 research visits, most of them outside Finland (196). In turn, 53 researchers have visited Finland. Furthermore, the researchers in the consortia ensure the continuity of their research and the transfer of knowledge by participating in teaching at their respective institutions.
The continuity of research is also furthered by participation in international funding calls. Because of this, the SRC has considered it to be important that each consortium participate in at least one significant international call during the first funding period. All consortia launched in 2015 have followed this stipulation and applied for international funding.
Impact is created in cooperation with stakeholders and the civil society
The defining qualities of research funded by the SRC are its interaction and cooperation with stakeholders and the general public. In fact, a significant amount of the indicators used to monitor the consortia are related to factors assessing societal impact. The accessibility of the research results, that is, the portion of stakeholders and general public reached, does not guarantee impact but is one of its central prerequisites.
All reviewed consortia have been active in their stakeholder cooperation and research communications. In total, the consortia have organised more than 2,600 presentations or events for stakeholders, with an estimated total attendance of more than 130,000. It is illustrative of the good accessibility of the research work that, during their first two years of operation, the consortia members participated daily in an average of three stakeholder meetings or other public presentations.
To the general public, the consortia have become familiar through numerous appearances in the media. The consortia have produced more than a thousand professional publications, reports and newspaper articles. The total number of public appearances in television, radio and newspapers as well as various lectures is nearly 3,400. Web-based communication channels, such as social media, websites, blogs and newsletters have also been invested in significantly. For instance, on Twitter, the consortia have a total of more than 11,000 followers, and their websites report nearly 140,000 page visits. In addition to media appearances, most consortia have also organised events for the general public on both the local, national and international level. In total, these events have been attended by more than 170,000 visitors.
Members of the consortia have practised interaction by actively participating in decision-making and influencing policy. Consortia members attended 541 committees, councils and working groups. Strategic research funding seeks new methods and forms of cooperation with decision-makers, including those in industry and business. Some consortia work in close cooperation with businesses, and their results have already made an impact: the first growth companies and spin-offs have sprung up during the first two-year review period.
You get what you ask for – how should impact be measured?
The consortia under review have reached the halfway point in their work, and an extensive assessment of the impact of their results is premature. The impact of the research projects manifests itself slowly, and long-term effects are difficult to predict. Based on quantitative evaluation, it is clear that the strategic research consortia have been active in their publication and interaction work. At the same time, the data show that the researchers are heavily committed to the openness of science and the promotion of multidisciplinary research.
Strategic research funding requires the consortia to continuously monitor their research and interactive cooperation as well as their impact. The choice of indicators is crucial, as results are often received only for that which is measured. However, it is not always clear what the quantitative output indicators truly measure or reveal about the activities. For this reason, it is important to evaluate the activities of the consortia qualitatively and within their individual contexts. The next blog post will discuss this type of qualitative assessment, which emphasises context and is performed by reviewing impact case studies provided by the consortia.