Riitta Maijala

Riitta Maijala: COVID-19 research: how we arrived at our special funding model

21 Apr 2020

As the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both the virus itself and the steps taken to curb its further spread have challenged our society and other countries around the world in unprecedented ways. Epidemics have been crossing continents for centuries, but never before has the world population been as interconnected as it is today, and never before has a single pathogen spread as rapidly across all continents.

Given the rate at which the novel coronavirus and its effects have been spreading, we at the Academy were keen to respond as quickly as possible and open new funding opportunities during this spring. Research and the new knowledge it produces are now urgently needed to tackle and resolve the major challenges faced in many key areas of society.

In order to identify and make funding available to the best research proposals, our decision-making is always based on rigorous scientific peer review. This requires that applicants have enough time to prepare their research plans; that our experts have enough time to check the applications and to assemble the panels according to the applications received; that invited panellists have enough time to study the applications and to meet up and prepare their statements; and that our in-house bodies have enough time to review the applications and the expert panellists’ opinions before reaching decisions. All told, this process takes 6–9 months.

We needed a new way: the COVID-19 epidemic will not wait

We’re always working to improve our call procedures and looking for new ways to cut processing times. However, we now had no option but to accept that, under these highly exceptional circumstances, the traditional peer review approach to assessing new applications would just not be fast enough.

Mobility and other restrictions have of course profoundly affected the working environment of applicants as well and made it much harder to set up new projects and to recruit personnel. The recruitment of international reviewers takes more time than normally as they are tied up and busy in their own countries. Even in the best case scenario, funding couldn’t have been made available for new projects until late 2020 earliest.

Clearly it was necessary for us to find a new way to move forward because we knew that the COVID-19 epidemic won’t wait. The first two solutions – redirecting the use of existing funding and special funding for COVID-19 research – are now set to go and open for application. We’re continuing to look into other options as well, but as yet no decisions have been made.

Redirecting existing funding for research into the COVID-19 epidemic and its effects

Researchers who wish to redirect their Academy-funded work in such a way that it no longer comes under the original intended purpose of their funding can apply for a change of purpose under our funding terms and conditions (pdf). Changes to an existing funding decision will only be granted for special reasons and circumstances.

One such circumstance is a situation where Academy funding could immediately be used for research concerned with the SARS-CoV-2 virus or the COVID-19 epidemic and its effects, but this use of funds would deviate significantly from the original research plan.

Information for funding recipients and applicants on the effects of the coronavirus epidemic

Aims of special funding for COVID-19 research

The aim of our special COVID-19 research funding is to support and accelerate relevant, topical and viable research related to the epidemic and to advance its application in society. This will include projects in all fields of research dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the COVID-19 epidemic it’s causing, the effects of the epidemic on society and the prevention and/or mitigation of its negative consequences.

In line with the theme of the COVID-19 call, the aim of this funding is to strengthen or realign ongoing research that will support efforts at halting the epidemic and mitigating its consequences; to improve open access to research data and outputs for researchers and the wider society; to promote the use of research knowledge in mitigating the effects of the epidemic; and to advance the use of research-based knowledge and expertise in society more generally.

Special funding for COVID-19 research will be made available for purposes of strengthening, redirecting or expanding ongoing Academy-funded research projects.

Implementation of special funding for COVID-19 research

The key cornerstones for the practical implementation of the special COVID-19 research funding were the role of scientific peer review, a lean application process, fast-track support and the recognition of exceptional circumstances. When preparing the COVID-19 call, we received valuable comments and suggestions from Universities Finland, the network of Finnish research institutes Tulanet, and the Rectors’ Conference of Finnish Universities of Applied Sciences Arene.

In the preparation process, we also examined the fast-track COVID-19 calls and research themes opened by funding bodies and agencies in other countries. On this basis we estimated whether a call exclusively targeted at research projects with current Academy funding (8.45 million euros or some 2% of the Academy’s overall funding in 2020) would attract a sufficient number of high-quality and relevant applicants.

In this analysis, we focused on such subjects as coronaviruses, respiratory infections, medications, vaccinations, pandemics, epidemics as well as crisis management, preparedness, public health and economic crises, and social disorder and resilience.

Our analysis indicated that an estimated 10% of all current Academy-funded research projects are well aligned with the aims of the call. On the closing date of the COVID-19 call, there will be a total of 2,600 ongoing Academy-funded research projects (including consortium sub-projects).

For purposes of practical implementation, we decided to adopt the following principles for the special COVID-19 research funding:

  1. Peer review: Decisions on special funding shall be based on a scientific peer review of applications submitted. The main evaluation focus for COVID-19 applications will be on relevance and the credibility of the research plan.
  2. Fast-track support: Research in an ongoing peer-reviewed project ties in with or can feasibly be redirected so that it ties in with the COVID-19 epidemic and the mitigation and prevention of effects during the spring and summer of 2020.
  3. Lean application process: A sub-application of no more than two pages in length shall describe how the research is based on an ongoing Academy-funded project and the relevance of the research plan to the theme of the call.
  4. Exceptional circumstances: Applications shall be filed by a research organisation. Upon receipt of funding the organisation shall undertake to ensure that the plans of the sub-application can be implemented in exceptional circumstances and within the projected time frame, taking into account the regulations of public authorities. COVID-19 funding can also be used for the principal investigator’s salary costs. Funding can commence retroactively from 1 February 2020. The funding period will end on 31 December 2021.

Funding will also be available through the September 2020 call

In September 2020, we will again be opening our main funding call for Academy Projects, Postdoctoral Researchers, Academy Research Fellows and Clinical Researchers. These calls are open to applications from all disciplines and all Finnish-based doctoral degree holders.

The COVID-19 epidemic and its multiple effects will no doubt continue to remain topical issues for research, and funding granted under the September call will allow for a longer-term and wider research undertaking. We will also continue to explore other possible avenues for supporting research in this field.

Riitta Maijala, Vice President for Research 

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