Suomen Akatemia

High-risk funding supports bold and innovative research initiatives

23 Feb 2022

The Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment offers two-year grants of high-risk funding to support researchers in implementing bold new approaches, developing research methods and multidisciplinarity and pushing the limits of research. What have been recipients’ experiences of high-risk funding?

The aim of the two-year high-risk funding is to support innovative projects which, based on the review made, would otherwise be excluded from funding because of the risks identified for the implementation of the project. Such risk factors may include shortcomings in the preliminary results aimed at demonstrating research feasibility, the introduction of a new research method, or challenges related to the collection of research data.

The Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment may nevertheless consider the quality and innovative nature of a project to be so significant that it nevertheless provides funding but, due to the risks, only for a shorter period of two years. It is not a separate funding instrument to which applications can be submitted but rather a choice made at the Research Council’s discretion.

High-risk funding was granted for the first time in autumn 2017 by the Research Council for Health, which was the predecessor to the Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment. The Research Council has stipulated that risk projects may comprise a maximum of 10% of grants issued for Academy Projects. The size of risk project grants is half the size of grants for normal Academy Projects (€250,000 for individual projects and €350,000 for two-person consortia). High-risk funding cannot be granted twice in succession to the same research project.

The Research Council granted high-risk funding to 14 projects in autumn 2018, nine projects in autumn 2019 and nine projects in autumn 2020. For the 2017 autumn call for applications, high-risk funding was granted to 39 research projects including a total of 44 researchers.

High-risk funding impact is closely monitored

The Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment considers peer review to be an important mechanism for identifying innovative and high-quality projects suitable for high-risk funding.

The review panels are informed that the potential recipients of high-risk funding are those projects for which the panel is favouring a rating of 4 or 5 (on a scale of 1 to 6) and the criticism centres around the project’s high risks. The suitable recipients are those for which the panel sees so much potential that, despite the risks, the rating given is 5. Projects receiving a top score of 6 can also be high-risk projects, but the panel considers them to be of the highest quality and internationally competitive. To date, no risk project has been a rating 6 project; all risk projects funded have had rating 5.

In the 2017–2020 autumn calls for applications, women comprised 57% of the recipients of high-risk funding and 47% of the recipients of four-year project funding. The share of young applicants (those with a dissertation less than 15 years ago) in the 2017–2020 autumn calls for applications was 50% for high-risk funding and 43% for four-year project funding. In addition, the Research Council for Biosciences, Health and the Environment examined the success of high-risk funding recipients in later Academy Project calls and found that 40% had received a grant.

High-risk funding facilitates good groundwork for new projects and further funding

In autumn 2020, a questionnaire was used to gather feedback from researchers who had received high-risk funding (34 respondents). The Research Council also held a meeting with researchers in November 2021 to review their experiences.

The survey and the meeting highlighted several clear perspectives from researchers on the funding. On the positive side, high-risk funding offers more people access to project funding and, in general, two-year funding was considered to be preferable to no funding at all. In addition, high-risk funding was considered to improve the likelihood of scientific breakthroughs. From the perspective of research continuity, high-risk funding was seen to enable good groundwork for new projects. Among other things, the comments stated that “the funding provides an opportunity to work through the risks identified in the project and to gather more information, for example through developing publications or research methods”. In addition, the funding option was considered to offer advantages in terms of its potential to promote research cooperation and to clarify research objectives.

A key positive feature of the funding option was the opportunity offered by the two-year high-risk funding period to prove, for example, the validity and feasibility of the research approach or data collection method assessed as risky. The opportunity to collect preliminary data was also mentioned, as was the chance to convince the assessment panel of the necessity and importance of the present study with a view to obtaining further funding.

A flexible feature of high-risk funding that received mention was the freedom it offered to adjust the research plan and budget.

Implementing a four-year research project plan with two-year high-risk funding was considered challenging

In their feedback, the researchers criticised the shorter duration of the high-risk funding. A clear majority of the researchers who participated in the survey and meeting found modifying the research plan to fit a two-year time-scale to be a particular challenge.

“Two years is a short time for a research project, and it’s challenging to select from a four-year research plan which parts to implement and which to cut back, for example by using a narrower dataset or making compromises in data collection. Guidance on which parts to implement within this two-year framework could perhaps be provided together with the grant,” stated one feedback provider. “When the funding is halved, the research project is less than half a project,” the researchers said in summary. In addition, the responses highlighted how the pandemic has heightened the challenges of carrying out projects that are shorter than planned.

Matters related to project start-up and recruitment were also seen as causing difficulties in some projects receiving high-risk funding, since the projects were originally planned for four years: “If the further funding had not come for the project, we would have faced a difficult situation with the doctoral candidate we had recruited. On the other hand, the two-year funding allowed the postdoctoral researcher to become proficient in working on challenging topics,” stated one of the comments received.

Feedback used to improve communication about high-risk funding

Based on the results from its survey, the Research Council has developed its communications on high-risk funding. The responses to the survey for funded researchers indicated, for example, that the majority of beneficiaries of high-risk funding (85%) did not know in advance about the two-year funding option.

The information given in the call texts about the Research Council’s funding decision policies has now been improved with regards to the possibility of two-year high-risk funding. In addition, the funding decision policies now contain more information about the objectives of high-risk funding as well as examples of risk factors that are considered when making such funding decisions.

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