Building world-class research competence at Finland’s universities

23 Jan 2020

Each year, the Academy of Finland steers 50 million euros of government funding towards developing the research strategies of Finnish universities. It’s part of a national plan to build world-class research clusters around the country.

In any academic discipline, it takes many decades for universities to build their research competence. Research excellence is not something that happens overnight. It requires long-term goal setting, focus, funding and – most importantly – excellent and enthusiastic researchers.

But the research goals of different university departments may not always ladder up to a shared vision, and professors may be lured away by higher salaries elsewhere.

Recognising these challenges, Finland’s Ministry of Education, Science and Culture decided in 2015 to move 50 million euros from the budgets of Finnish universities to be channelled through the Academy of Finland. One of the main drivers was that the strategic development of the universities’ research profiles warranted specific support and the benefit of peer review. The funding instrument is named PROFI.

“We want Finnish universities to have living and strong research profiles, but it’s difficult to achieve a critical mass in any field if research is too scattered,” says the Academy of Finland’s Vice President for Research, Riitta Maijala. “Through PROFI, we’re supporting the strategic choices made by the universities to develop research profiles that will benefit universities and Finland for many years to come.”

How it works

The PROFI instrument effectively introduces a competitive element to the funding process, compelling Finland’s 13 universities to focus on developing strong research profiles. These may be areas of research a university is already good at, emerging areas in which a university could conceivably reach a world-class level, or entirely new areas with high potential for impact.

To apply for funding through the instrument, universities must submit detailed plans about their research strategies and goals for four years ahead. In future PROFI funding calls, the plans shall cover a six-year period. These plans – which include the universities’ requests for specific euro amounts – are then reviewed by an independent panel of rectors from universities outside Finland, with funds allocated by the Academy of Finland according to a point score recommendation from the panel. There also other funding criteria, such as societal impact, national added value and links to the universities’ strategies.

“One of the strengths of this process is that it’s essentially peer review, as the panel is made up of university rectors and vice rectors from several other countries,” Maijala says. “They have invaluable experience in developing university research profiles, so they can competently assess the quality of the universities’ plans and make funding recommendations that are entirely independent.”

Funding for the future

In the 2019 funding round, 11 of the 13 universities that applied were granted funding. A total of 32 research-profiling areas were detailed, covering the fields of science, business, art, environmental protection, energy, health, sustainability, and more. The universities’ applications indicate that most funding is used to provide competitive salary packages to attract top-notch researchers, but also for developing research infrastructure and building partnerships both locally and abroad.

The PROFI instrument has been evaluated twice since its inception in 2015; the first evaluation was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture and the second by the Academy of Finland. These evaluations have shown it to have a high impact, with the funding used to strengthen coordinated research bodies and promote multidisciplinary collaboration. The transparency of the application process and the independent international peer-review panel are also appreciated by higher education institutions.

What's next?

The sixth round of PROFI funding will open for applications in May 2020. The funding instrument has been revamped in cooperation with universities and based on the results of the two evaluation reports. Under the new scheme, the funding period will be extended to six years to better support long-term research development. The Academy has also tried to make it easier to apply for PROFI funding. For example, the structure of the application has been simplified based on feedback from applicants and reviewers.

* Text by Andrew Flowers

Do you have questions or feedback for us?