Paula Leskinen

Monitoring and reporting of research projects matter

22 Apr 2024

Once the funding period of the Research Council of Finland grant has started, the funded researcher starts carrying out the research plan. What happens then at the Research Council in terms of project monitoring? Why do researchers need to report on their project, and what do we do with the information?

Research funding granted by the Research Council of Finland is by nature a government grant, the use and control of which is regulated by legislation on discretionary government transfers. A state aid authority such as the Research Council of Finland has a statutory obligation to monitor the use of grants awarded and assess their impacts.

The performance agreement between the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the Research Council of Finland sets performance targets related to the societal impact of the Research Council’s activities, performance and resource management. Some of the targets are quantitative, others qualitative. Performance is monitored annually throughout the four-year agreement.

Good governance and financial management guide project management

The grant management process at the Research Council is guided by the principles of good governance and good financial management. The latter includes taking account of efficiency and impact in the management of government grants. In addition to efficiency and impact, the Research Council must also be able to assess the accountability of the funded projects and how the funding schemes are working.

We’re very interested to know how the research projects are doing. The information provided to us during and after the project is a key tool that provides us with information that is relevant to our own activities.

Information collected from ongoing projects linked to monitoring use of funding

The vast majority of Research Council of Finland funding is paid against invoices, meaning that the research organisations managing the projects only receive money after sending a request for payment, or invoice, to the Research Council. The invoice must show how much money has been spent for each purpose, that is, how many euros have been spent on equipment, salaries or travel.

Some of the costs declared on the invoice are checked automatically, but each project also has its own case examiner at the Research Council. The role of the examiner is to check that what is invoiced for the project is in line with what was originally funded. For example, has the project invoiced significantly more salary costs than what was included in the original budget? The complex problems that often arise during the checking require professional skills and an understanding of the nature of the research.

During the project, researchers can also apply for changes in the funding decision under certain conditions. These may include changing sites of research (the research organisation) or principal investigators. Applications for changes are dealt with by the project’s case examiner. For some changes, case examiners may decide on the matter themselves. Other types of changes are more complex and require more discretion. In such cases, the final say lies with the competent director at the Research Council or, in the most demanding cases, the body that made the funding decision (e.g. a scientific council).

Easy issues to resolve include extensions to the funding period due to statutory parental leave or military or civilian service. More difficult issues to resolve are, for example, major changes in the purpose of use of funding. For example, if the original application concerned studying the European pied flycatcher in Southwest Finland, but during the course of the project it turns out that it for some reason is more appropriate to collect data to answer the research question in Central Finland, this is unlikely to be a problem.

On the other hand, if the funding was granted for field studies on nesting pied flycatchers in Southwest Finland, and the researchers decide to use the funding for a major purchase of laboratory equipment and conference travel, this can be a problem and needs to be examined. Significant consideration is also required if the parties to the change application, such as the research organisation and the principal investigator, do not agree on the type of change that would be necessary.

The Research Council has a multidisciplinary grant management support group that deals with complex issues related to the use of funding. The group includes science advisers and legal, financial and data administration experts.

We’re improving the reporting of projects based on strategic impact objectives

At the end of the funding period, we require that grantees submit a final report within a certain deadline. Some funding instruments also include an interim report, that is, a report to be completed during the project. The demands on the Research Council of Finland to demonstrate its performance and impact have increased, and so-called content reports from funded projects are a key tool to meet these demands. We are also increasingly expected to actively produce information and use data from the reports.

We’re currently working on a project to improve the reporting process. We’re considering how the information asked in the current report aligns with the impact objectives of our strategy, whether the information is necessary and whether it is asked as unambiguously as possible. And what is the quality of the information?

Not all relevant issues can be quantified in figures. For example, a project’s research collaboration can be examined by collecting data on partners or on international and national researcher mobility. Assessing impact is also an interesting task, as many of the effects of research can only be seen decades after the project has ended. How can researchers describe this in a final report? And what is the best way to ask questions in general, so that the answers in the final report are workable? This is the kind of reporting issues we are working on actively at the Research Council right now.

Finally, we would like to thank all those who report on their projects to us! The reporting material you provide is invaluable to us.

Do you have questions or feedback for us?