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Examination of Academy Professor and Centre of Excellence funding schemes to continue

16 Feb 2024

The results of a Research Council of Finland stakeholder survey on the merger of the Academy Professor and Centre of Excellence funding schemes show that there is a clear perceived need for both schemes. Based on the feedback we received, the Centre of Excellence funding works well in its current form, but there are many different views on the objectives of the Academy Professor funding.

The mission statement of the Research Council of Finland’s new strategy is to open up new avenues for excellent, responsible and high-impact research. As part of the implementation of the strategy, we will review our current portfolio of funding opportunities and assess their timeliness. Our aim is to build a balanced and up-to-date set of funding schemes.

Currently, we are in the process of examining the Academy Professor and Centre of Excellence funding schemes. In late 2023, we launched a survey for the research community and our stakeholders on the possibility of combining the application deadlines and review process of these funding schemes, or combining them altogether.

The examination was prompted by an aim to develop the funding schemes into a whole with two complementary rather than overlapping parts. In their current form, the two funding schemes partly have the same objectives and the same applicants, which has meant a lot of overlapping work for applicants and a laborious review process for the Research Council. In addition, the low success rate of the call for Academy Professor applications in particular has prompted a thorough examination of the funding instrument. The recommendations of the 2022 international evaluation of the Research Council of Finland also called for a more thorough evaluation of the Research Council’s funding schemes, especially the Academy Professor funding.

Survey says: good ratings for current Centre of Excellence funding

As part of the examination, we launched a Webropol survey for researchers and other stakeholders on 16 November 2023. The survey was open until 3 December 2023 and attracted more than 340 respondents. The survey was accessible either through a blog post published in November or through a targeted message sent to stakeholders.

The importance of a bottom-up approach was emphasised in the responses concerning the Centre of Excellence funding. Respondents considered it important that the funding is applied for by researchers. The fact that the call is open to all disciplines was also seen as a key element. Respondents also praised the long-term funding period of eight years.

In general, the CoE programme was perceived to work well and to be a good funding instrument in its current format. Respondents valued the allocation of funding to fundamental research, scientific renewal, potential and new initiatives, innovative thinking, topical issues and discipline-specific priorities.

Suggestions for improvement included reducing the size of the centres and the funding for individual centres, and targeting funding to a larger number of centres. Proposals to shorten the funding period were also put forward. Respondents also asked for a streamlining of the interviews and the materials used in the first call stage.

The support and commitment of the host institution or site of research to the CoE funding was described by respondents, for example, as follows:

“At our university, the framework conditions for Centres of Excellence are taken seriously.”

“We've received a tenure position, a doctoral programme position, and money. And the support is also intangible. They really value us.”

“We were promised support by the host institution, but it required lengthy negotiations and ultimately the intervention of higher-ups.”

“Today, the support from the university has improved, but ten years ago it was non-existent.”

Figure 1. Answers to the question “If you have headed a Centre of Excellence or been part of one, did you think the commitment/support of the site of research was sufficient?” (158 respondents to the targeted survey, 183 to the open survey).

Respondents called for regularity and adequate funding in Academy Professor scheme

With regard to the Academy Professor funding scheme, the survey respondents emphasised the researcher-driven nature of the call. The call being open to all disciplines and research topics and the five-year funding period were also considered important elements.

“An Academy Professorship and the possibility to apply for it is an important motivator for professors and a clear goal to work towards.” (free-form survey answer)

As suggestions for improvement, the respondents mentioned the regularity and predictability of the Academy Professor calls, as well as their expansion to a wider range of researchers. At the same time, respondents would like to see more funding per call in order to reach a more reasonable success rate. Respondents also suggested, for example, limiting the number of consecutive funding periods. Otherwise, the survey yielded relatively few ideas on how to reduce the workload of the call process.

Of the ideas put forward in the survey, the option with the highest support was: “I am not in favour of combining the Academy Professor and CoE calls or funding schemes.” The second most supported option was: “The call schedule and review process of the two schemes will be merged; the funding decisions will be independent of each other.”

What are the next steps?

The results of the survey were further discussed and analysed at a stakeholder workshop on 14 December 2023. The discussions yielded the following key objectives for the Centre of Excellence funding scheme:

  • a research-driven, long-term funding instrument that facilitates new initiatives, risk-taking and scientific innovation
  • supports both top researchers and those aspiring to reach the top – support from the organisation/site of research is essential
  • funding to support solid fundamental research, where impact can emerge after a long time
  • focus on international quality and networks
  • supports the security of the knowledge supply in Finland.

The following objectives were defined for the Academy Professor funding scheme, among others:

  • focus on scientific, internationally peer-reviewed excellence and quality of research – supporting breakthrough research and identifying research that is already cutting-edge
  • important to also allow early-career researchers to succeed in the call, evidence of their competence as a researcher
  • focus on freedom and bold initiatives: important to support a wide range of research fields
  • more emphasis on scientific renewal and opportunities in new sectors
  • taking into account ERC funding schemes and the compatibility between funding schemes.

Following the stakeholder workshop, discussions on the findings of the report have continued in the Research Council of Finland’s scientific councils and during the Board’s evening session in late January. The Board will continue to work on this topic in late February, and decisions on the objectives of the funding schemes and the indicative call deadlines are expected to be taken in April.

Information on the decisions will be published on the Research Council of Finland’s website.

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