The Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering examines the perspectives of its field and the effectiveness and impact of the research funded in many ways every year. The Research Council monitors the development of its research fields systematically, not only based on the information obtained through applications and panel reports, but also in the light of key indicators. Additionally, separate reports on the impacts and effectiveness of measures implemented on the basis of research policy can be carried out at the initiative of the Research Council.
The current Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering will end its three-year term of office on 31 December 2021. The end of the term is a time to take a look at the past for a moment and summarise what has been achieved and which topics the new Research Council should continue to work on.
National cooperation produces ambitious research topics – researcher-oriented Academy Project funding is the most effective according to the Research Council
The long-term objective of the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering is to promote research framework conditions in fields of science and technology and to improve the quality of research through national and international cooperation. In promoting national cooperation, consortium-based Academy Projects have proven to be a functional concept. The Research Council’s positive attitude towards larger consortia has encouraged researchers in the natural sciences and engineering sector to engage in multidisciplinary research cooperation across council boundaries.
This year, almost half of the Academy Projects funded by the Research Council were part of a larger consortium. High-quality consortium applications also do great in the tough competition for research funding – the share of consortium subprojects in the grants was higher than their share in the applications overall. Based on the review reports on the applications, the Research Council also expects the achievements of consortium projects to be impactful.
During the mandate of the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering, the quality of project applications has increased year by year. The international reviewers found as many as 51 per cent of the applications for natural sciences and engineering projects in the September 2020 call excellent (overall rating 6 or 5). The Research Council funded around 74 per cent of projects with a rating of 6, but only around 10 per cent of projects with a rating of 5 could be funded. One of the most frustrating matters in the work of the Research Council has been to see many excellent projects remain unfunded.
The future is in the young generation of researchers
The Academy of Finland has allocated 25 million euros for Academy Project funding each year to promote the careers of the early-career researchers during the 2019–2021 mandate of the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering. There have been several competitive new-generation Academy Project applicants in the natural sciences and engineering sectors. Indeed, the amount of annual funding they have received surpasses the Research Council’s special funding budget reserved for that group of applicants.
Research posts as Academy Research Fellow have proven to be an excellent funding opportunity in supporting the independence of early-career researchers. The funding scheme has enabled the best researchers who have progressed rapidly to establish their own group or to stabilise their research group. However, the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering has been concerned about the very low success rates among Academy Research Fellows (9–11% in the September calls 2018–2020) in the research fields represented by the Research Council.
Special measures related to targeted funding calls increase impact
Occasionally, the reviews of the Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering on the impact of research raise concerns that they try to address where possible. Special measures are one way to exert influence. For example, the current and previous Councils for Natural Sciences and Engineering have implemented different types of doctoral degree funding in autumn call in 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019 and 2021.
In 2020, the Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering carried out a report on the effectiveness and impact of the allocation of postdoctoral researcher funding in 2015. At that time, funding was allocated to the following fields of engineering: energy engineering, mechanical and manufacturing engineering, process engineering and environmental engineering. The aim was to activate high-standard applicants in fields that are important to the Finnish export industry, from which the Research Council receives far too few applications. The aim was also to commit promising early-career researchers to academic careers and to produce new and impactful information on topics important for Finnish industry. The most pleasant result of the report was that all Postdoctoral Researchers funded in the aforementioned fields had, after their funding period, mainly been placed in demanding research tasks – some of them even as professors. Another significant observation was that two-thirds of the Postdoctoral Researchers cooperated with companies or other end-users of research data. Based on the results of the report, the Research Council decided on the targeting of the most recent funding call in the autumn of 2021.
Selected international funding cooperation can be used to invest in future growth sectors
The Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering has also promoted the prerequisites for a research community in its research fields through international cooperation with funding agencies. The Research Council has carefully selected the targets of international cooperation in areas of strategic importance where it sees both scientific, technological and economic potential. Together with European funders, the Research Council has funded research in quantum technology (QuantERA), personalised medicine (ERA PerMed) and solar-driven chemistry (Solar-driven chemistry).
The Research Council has also cooperated with funders in the Nordic countries. In 2021, it granted 2 million euros to a pilot call for research targeted at cooperation in the technological fields based on the bilateral funding cooperation agreement between the Academy of Finland and the Research Council of Norway (RCN). In cooperation with Swedish research funder Formas, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of Finland and the Ministry of the Environment, the Research Council has funded sectors supporting the forest industry through the Tandem Forest Values programme. The Walter Ahlström Foundation also participated in the third call of the programme, which was open in late 2021.
The Academy of Finland and Business Finland work together to implement the ICT 2023 research, development and innovation programme, which is a special contribution to in-depth learning in ICT. Since 2014, the administration of the programme has been the responsibility of the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering. The outgoing Research Council carried out the international interim evaluation of the ICT 2023 programme in 2020. The programme also provides funding for the Finnish ICT projects of the European CHIST-ERA network and the Finnish partners in the joint call for applications organised by the Academy of Finland and the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States. The 2021 call with the NSF targeted the areas of wireless communications and artificial intelligence.
Stakeholder cooperation is important for the Research Council
In addition to national and international funders, the 2021 stakeholder organisations of the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering included the Finnish Research Impact Foundation, with which the Research Council discussed opportunities for cooperation in intensifying cooperation between business community and research organisations in projects involving early-career researchers. Before the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic at the end of 2019, the Research Council managed to organise a meeting for the new generation of researchers in the technological fields.
Continuing cooperation with stakeholder groups will also be very important in the future, as some of the observations made by the Research Council require extensive scientific political discussions and measures in different sectors. For example, in the fields of natural sciences and especially in the field of engineering, the number of Finnish Postdoctoral Researcher applicants is declining compared to foreign applicants. The Research Council is also concerned about the low number of female applicants in natural sciences and engineering, especially from the viewpoints of the renewal and diversification of research and the research community. The number of talented students that apply primarily in the natural sciences and engineering should be increased. Encouraging especially girls and women to enter the fields of engineering and computer sciences is seen as an important opportunity. However, it is positive that the number of female Postdoctoral Researcher applicants has been on the rise in the last few years.