The Research Council to undergo evaluation

The Norwegian research council model is the result of an innovative reform carried out in the 1990s. Is the model functioning as intended? A public evaluation of the Research Council’s activities is in the works to find out.

Arvid Hallén

Arvid Hallén

Arvid Hallén, Director General of the Research Council, is looking forward to the evaluation. It will assess how far the Research Council has come in achieving the objectives that were set out at the time of a merger of five separate, discipline-oriented research councils in 1993, and further refined in a structural reorganisation in 2003.

Unique model

The Norwegian model is unique internationally, as the Research Council allocates funding within all disciplines as well as for all types of research within all sectors. The Research Council also plays a significant role in providing input on research policy to the Norwegian Government.

Strengths and a few weak points

The main purpose of the merger in 1993 was to enhance coordination and promote consistency in research and innovation policy.

“Of course there are many challenges in coordinating so many players. And we have to accept that our system poses – and will continue to pose – certain challenges. But I believe that most people who are involved in our activities agree that the strengths of a unified research council by far outweigh its weaknesses,” says Director General of the Research Council Arvid Hallén.

Complex relationships

In carrying out its activities, the Research Council must interact with the entire business sector; all of Norway’s universities, university colleges and independent research institutes; and 16 government ministries.

Dr Hallén explains that each ministry within the government administration is assigned special responsibility for research within its sphere. “This means that the Council receives a separate allocation letter from each of 16 ministries every year. But the budget proposals we draw up are cohesive and based on overall national priorities. Our ability to provide the required cross-sectoral perspectives is one of the main reasons for having a single research council.”

“It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that the Research Council plays a vital role in fostering coherency in Norwegian research,” he continues, citing the research-related follow-up of the cross-political climate agreement reached in the Storting in 2008 as a prime example of the Council’s cross-sectoral coordinating function.

At the forefront of internationalization

The internationalisation of Norwegian research is another key area of focus for the Research Council.

“International collaboration between researchers is on the rise; at the same time, research policy is becoming increasingly internationalised. As a single, unified research council we have been able to take on an active role in this context both at home and abroad in connection with our tasks as a policy advisor to the political authorities, as an information channel and as a motivator for the research community. This would have been far more difficult for a group of several different councils,” the Director General asserts.

Efficient organization

An evaluation of the Research Council ten years after its establishment concluded that the organisation was efficient and had low administrative costs in comparison to research councils in other countries.

Dr Hallén is particularly pleased with the level of professionalism achieved in relation to funding announcements and grant application processing thanks to one of Europe’s best electronic application submission systems. “A survey carried out in 2009 reveals that the international referees we use are also very pleased with the system.”

Organized to differentiate and coordinate

When the Research Council was reorganised in 2003, a chief aim was to give it a more distinct profile within the basic research sector and the business sector alike. The Council was to be differentiated enough to address the specific needs of the various target groups, while at the same time maintaining the overall view required to effectively coordinate basic research with innovation and industry-oriented research.

“To achieve this, three divisions were created: one for basic research, one for innovation research and one for strategic priorities. I think this was an excellent move. But of course,” says Dr Hallén, “these divisions represent only one of the many possible organisational structures.”

Support for basic research

“Under the Division for Science we have effective instruments at our disposal to provide support for basic, long-term research in Norway. We know that basic research tends to be vulnerable in a system strongly based on the sectoral principle, so we have invested considerable effort in devising good solutions to counteract any negative pressures.”

Funding for basic research is channelled through independent researcher-initiated projects, the Centres of Excellence scheme (SFF) and the Large-scale Programme initiative. “We have recently achieved a major breakthrough in terms of a significant increase in allocations for research infrastructure,” states Dr Hallén.

Instruments for innovation

The Research Council conducts a wide array of industry-oriented and user-driven research activities under the Division for Innovation. A large amount of the programme funding for national priority areas administered under the Division for Strategic Priorities is also directed toward these activities.

“Developing new funding instruments has been an important task in recent years. In addition to our Large-scale Programmes, we administer the SkatteFUNN tax deduction scheme and have established the Centres for Research-based Innovation (SFF) scheme, an industry-neutral innovation arena (the Programme for User-driven Research-based Innovation), various instruments for regional innovation, and most recently regional research funds. We are also working on renewing our programmes for commercialisation of R&D activities. It is one of our strengths that we can work with all these instruments under a single umbrella,” says Dr Hallén.

Expectations for the evaluation

Arvid Hallén hopes that the evaluation will provide a constructive basis for further developing the Research Council and Norwegian research at large.

“We are facing some formidable tasks. Not least, the Norwegian business sector – and Norwegian society as a whole – must tackle major innovation-related challenges. We need to take a critical look at how we at the Research Council are performing our tasks today and find out how we can do things better,” he concludes.

According to Minister of Research and Higher Education Tora Aasland, the evaluation of the Research Council of Norway will be carried out within the current parliamentary period, i.e. by autumn 2013. Start-up is planned for early 2011.

Source: The Research Council of Norway

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