Supporting science through the Research Council of Norway

March is a month to secure funds for the future

Research Council

Photos: Ilan Kelman (top) & Gorm Kallestad / NTB (above)
The Research Council of Norway—Forskningsrådet—is housed in a modern building in western Oslo.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

As March rolls around, from southern to northern Norway, the flowers pop out from the snow, the birds cheerily chirp, people greet in English with “spring has sprung,” and scientists are busy trying to meet grant application deadlines from the Research Council of Norway, Forskningsrådet. Many deadlines crop up throughout the year, and some programs are open to apply any time. This year, a list of due dates appears during 2024’s third month.

Why do scientists in Norway apply for research grants? If they didn’t, they would not have money to support PhD students, to help post-doctoral researchers establish their academic careers, to purchase lab equipment or specialized software, to travel for data collection and project meetings, to attend conferences, or for any of the other myriad of costly activities required for world-class science. Some could not even purchase a basic computer.

Norway also has many semi-independent research institutes, being given some money from government but generally required to win enough consultancies or research projects to cover salaries and overhead costs, including offices. The Institute of Marine Research and the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs are examples, with their names explaining exactly what they study—while spending a lot of time advising companies, charities, and governments.

Research CouncilSo scientists while away many hours writing proposals to the Research Council of Norway. A typical project presents a team from around Norway and a few others from outside of Norway; a detailed scientific plan divided into work packages and tasks; an outline of communicating and disseminating results and recommendations in science and popular science venues; and perhaps a scientific advisory committee and a policy/practice advisory committee. Applications can vary widely, depending on the budget size, the topic, and the criteria for judging proposals.

The core should remain new science. Why is the proposal innovative? How will the work produce something that we do not already know? How could the lead researchers be certain that the promises can be fulfilled within the proposed time and budget?

Some opportunities are wide open across numerous disciplines. One March 6 deadline is vaguely about suggesting a “Researcher Project for Scientific Renewal,” within specific themes ranging from “Competence for working life” to “New, advanced battery materials.” Others are more specific, such as a March 13 deadline for “Knowledge-building Project for Industry,” with one focus being carbon dioxide capture and storage. Project budgets generally start around NOK 4 million for three years, with options to apply for many times that amount for up to eight years.

Even NOK 1 million per year does not go far. It could not even cover two PhD students! Each researcher on the project might cost over NOK 300,000 per year for 20% of their time including overhead. Adding in travel and equipment means a fairly small team for projects at the lower budget end.

Once the budget is finalized, along with the scientific program and administrative aspects of the application, it is submitted for peer review. Individuals or a committee review all applications, judging them according to criteria that might cover creativity and feasibility. Then, someone or a committee must somehow compile the reviews and judgments to rank applications and decide which ones to fund. It all sounds a bit murky and it is.

Rumors swirl regarding other balancing acts, which might or might be equal numbers of male and female project leaders, distribution of projects around the country, politics about which research institutes can lead which research topics, and offering opportunities to universities and research institutes. Obviously, personalities, biases, and individual amity or enmity could never play roles in an entirely dispassionate, neutral, objective, and impartial process of one human being judging another.

And so the hours throughout March spent producing a scientific and bureaucratic document are validated or wasted by a single email from the Research Council of Norway indicating that the project proposal will be funded or not. The winners dive into the paperwork to get the project moving and completed—signing contracts, advertising for and hiring staff, purchasing equipment, planning meetings, seeking research ethics approval, and eventually actually collecting, analyzing, and publishing data. The losers lick their wounds, curse the reviews and reviewers, and jump back onto the Research Council of Norway’s website to look for the next deadline to restart the process.

And thus human knowledge progresses.

This article originally appeared in the March 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.