Jussi Vauhkonen

Jussi Vauhkonen: Diversity of scientific research crucial to securing a broad base of skills and competencies for the future

7 Sep 2021

Finnish government spending on science and research is forecast to reach some 2,400 million euros in 2021, Statistics Finland figures show. Out of this total, the Academy of Finland is tasked with allocating over 400 million euros to high-quality research based on open competition and peer review. Recently we’ve often been asked about how exactly we make our funding decisions and what criteria we apply. This blog post is intended to shed some light on these questions.

As part of the annual budget process, Parliament decides each year how much, and for what purposes, research funding is set aside for allocation by the Academy of Finland. At the same time, Parliament decides on the amount of core funding made available to universities and government research institutes. This is the political process of deciding how much government money shall be invested in scientific research.

As far as the Academy is concerned, this political decision-making process relates to the overall volume of research funding and to the uses of this funding in rather general terms. The state budget may also include more specific provisions regarding allocation, such as for purposes of “funding research infrastructures” or “advancing collaboration between research organisations and research end-users”. On occasion, the Academy has received one-off appropriations for the achievement of some specific objectives. Most recently this happened last spring as part of the Finnish Government’s Covid-19 recovery and resilience plan.

This is as far as political decision-making extends, because Parliament has also passed a law that says that the Academy of Finland has the discretion and authority to decide which research projects it wants to support with the funds it receives through the state budget.

Who decides on the use of funding at the Academy?

Decisions on funding are made by the Academy’s decision-making bodies, whose members are appointed by the Government for a three-year term. These bodies are the Academy’s Board, the three research councils, the Finnish Research Infrastructure Committee and the Strategic Research Council, established within the Academy of Finland. Their members are all distinguished and experienced scholars and experts in research utilisation. Nominations for membership of the Academy’s decision-making bodies are solicited from universities, research institutes, science academies and scientific societies.

The Board apportions the research funds awarded to the Academy in the state budget to the Academy’s other decision-making bodies. The amounts earmarked for Strategic Research Council and research infrastructure funding are specified directly in the state budget. They account for around one-quarter of total Academy funding.

Roughly half of the funding apportioned out by the Academy’s Board goes to the research councils. Within their respective disciplines, the research councils then provide funding for Postdoctoral Researchers, Clinical Researchers, Academy Research Fellows and Academy Projects.

The other half goes towards supporting and promoting research, developing research environments, setting up and running research programmes, and advancing the impact of research through funding for Centres of Excellence, Flagships, Research Infrastructures and projects in Academy Programmes. The research done under these funding schemes is often multidisciplinary in nature, and funding decisions are typically made in specifically appointed subcommittees, with members coming from different decision-making bodies.

How is the funding divided between different disciplines?

There are many ways to classify scientific disciplines and research fields. The classification we use at the Academy is posted on our website. We have also listed which discipline comes under which research council. The exact figures for how much Academy funding goes to different research fields depends on the classification used, as well as on how researchers themselves classify their research. The Academy’s financial statements (available in Finnish) include statistics on the breakdown of research funding, but they must be read with caution: science is constantly evolving and therefore boundaries between disciplines are also in constant flux.

Over the years, the breakdown of funding between the Academy’s three research councils has settled at a level that roughly reflects the volume of research conducted in the principal academic disciplines. But measuring the volume of research is again far from straightforward. One way to get an estimate is to look at the number of research personnel in a given discipline. One useful source here is Education Statistics Finland. However, the Academy does not allocate funding to any research field per se, nor does it have any mathematical formula. Instead, all funding is awarded to specific projects based on the results of peer reviews.

How are funding decisions made?

The Academy follows a rigorous peer review process, which means that the body responsible for the respective funding decisions solicits the expert opinion of foreign scholars working in the same or a closely related field. These experts convene and form a joint opinion on the quality of each research plan submitted. In practice, only those among the top 20 per cent of applicants will eventually get funding from the Academy.

Every funding decision is made by a decision-making body, which bases its decision on the peer reviewers’ expert opinion. Furthermore, the decision-making body will consider the Academy’s science policy objectives, such as the promotion of open science and research. The criteria for funding decisions are established by the Academy Board and published on the Academy website. Applicants are informed of the rationale of all funding decisions. The Academy does not award funding to members of its decision-making bodies, and all its decision-making takes places in strict accordance with disqualification rules and other good governance standards.

On what grounds is funding awarded and why?

There’s much talk about whether research funding could be allocated on different grounds, leading to different kinds of choices. For instance, it’s been questioned whether the Academy’s decision-making bodies pay sufficient attention to the practical application or impacts of research.

Our thinking at the Academy is that science and its results have both intrinsic and instrumental value. Science is needed as a foundation for our understanding of the world and human culture, as a basis for sustainable wellbeing and welfare, and to support informed decision-making and the development of better practices and education. Research, research-based skills and competencies and the application of scientific knowledge are closely interwoven with one another.

We take the view that science is useful because it pursues a better understanding and deeper knowledge and – even with all its faults – brings us closer to truth. That’s why we insist that the projects we support and fund also show practical impact. High-quality research always carries impact within the science community, and it will often carry impact, over a shorter or longer term, within broader society as well. Part of the Academy’s funding is allocated thematically, in other words, with a view to addressing and resolving some broadly defined societal or scientific issue. Societal challenges are specifically addressed in strategic research programmes, whose themes are confirmed by the Government based on preparatory work within the science community.

The benefits from the practical application of scientific research materialise at different points in society and on different time horizons. Sometimes that horizon may extend a long time into the future. One of the key impacts of research is the growth of skills and competencies, and we don’t know for sure what kind of skills and competencies Finland or humanity will be needing in 50 or 100 years’ time.

For these reasons, it should be clear that it makes sense for society to invest in funding a diverse range of scientific research and to continue efforts to advance the quality, impact and regenerative capacity of research. This is what the Academy of Finland is trying to do.

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