Norwegian physics research evaluated: Physics research community in international forefront

An international committee has completed an evaluation of the quality of the various institutions and groups conducting basic research in physics in Norway. Their conclusion: a number of groups have an internationally leading role within their field, while other segments of the physics research community are fragmented.

One of the Research Council’s key tasks is to promote quality and efficiency in research. To ensure that it has the basis needed to provide constructive recommendations, the Research Council regularly carries out evaluations of all research establishments – primarily those conducting basic research – within specific disciplines.

15 % get top marks

In 2009 an evaluation was conducted of 45 research groups in physics. Some 15 per cent of these received the top mark “excellent”, which means that these groups have been assessed as playing a leading international role and conducting original research published in the most respected international scientific journals. Their productivity is rated as high and their activities are relevant both to the international research community and to Norwegian society at large. The groups also have realistic, clearly-formulated strategic research plans.

Bengt Gustafsson

Need schemes that provide structure

The evaluation committee also finds that a major segment of the physics research community in Norway is too fragmented. Thus the establishment of mechanisms to prevent scientific fragmentation and the formation of research groups below minimum critical mass will be essential in the years ahead.

“The Research Council’s funding schemes should be designed to provide structure and counteract fragmentation,” said chair of the committee Bengt Gustafsson, a professor of theoretical astrophysics at Uppsala University, when he presented the report to the Executive Board of the Division for Science on 3 February 2010.

The committee points out that many institutions lack strategic development plans and suggest that a systematic, consistent effort in this area could lead to greater productivity even within the confines of a limited budget. The evaluation report itself is also a tool that institutions can employ in their strategic and scientific development activities.

Insufficient national coordination

There is very good national coordination and distribution of research tasks within fields such as subatomic physics (elementary particle physics and nuclear physics) and complex systems, but such networking is lacking in other fields.

The evaluation committee recommends that the National Committee on Physics takes a greater responsibility for activities to promote national coordination, particularly with regard to distributing research tasks among institutions, enhancing mobility, designating priorities for and coordinating the use of large-scale equipment, and strengthening specific fields. These activities must be carried out in close cooperation with the relevant institutions and the Research Council.

“Mobility is of fundamental importance to scientific renewal – but it is sorely lacking among physics researchers in Norway. We recommend the launching of incentive schemes to address this problem,” said Gustafsson.

More independent projects

The committee emphasises that an increase in allocations within the Research Council’s open competitive arena for independent, researcher-initiated basic research projects (FRIPRO) will be crucial to boosting productivity in basic physics research measured in terms of publication frequency. Although Research Council allocations to basic physics research have grown during the 2005-2008 period, funding levels in Norway still lag behind those of Sweden or Denmark, for example.

Follow-up committee

The Research Council will appoint a committee to draw up a national follow-up plan that incorporates the conclusions of the evaluation committee and the Research Council’s comments on key findings and recommendations. All the institutions evaluated have had the opportunity to propose personnel from their institution to participate in the effort to devise the follow-up plan.

Source: The Research Council of Norway

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