Jan Fagerberg, professor at the University of Oslo’s social sciences department faculty, was appointed in 2010 by the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research to lead a committee to look at the problem. The appointment was the result of a recommendation made in a previous government White Paper on research. He started by looking at resources that were put into the system, the results measured through research publications, and the impact that these had in the international research community as reflected in citations.
What the committee found was that Norwegian performance was on the low side. Both Sweden and Denmark had a more favourable ratio between results – measured as research production and its impact through citations – and resources. It was only natural to ask what could be done to increase the productivity of publicly financed research in Norway, he says.
The committee also found very large differences between Norwegian research institutions. In particular, they noted that several vice chancellors didn’t know how much was being by published by their university’s professors. Some even had little or nothing published
“We took that as an indication that there was potential for getting more out of the resources,” said Fagerberg in an interview from the UK, where he is currently a visiting professor at the University of Sussex’s science and technology policy research department.
One of the key recommendations from his report is that the Norwegian government should enlarge its current system of open research. Norway is unique in that it has only one research council. As a result, there is less competition for independent research funding. Only a small percentage of the Research Council of Norway’s budget is currently open for competition independent of thematic priorities.
“The tendency over many years is that the Research Council has developed into a structure where almost all of the funding is thematically prioritized, largely because it is proposed by different government ministries in areas where the country has an economic interest, like in natural resources,” said Fagerberg. “But many research groups in the university are not particularly interested in those areas, except in areas such as medicine. Most of the funding in R&D in the health sector in Norway is originated within the hospital and is normally not open to proposals for university professors.”
The committee has based the structure of the proposed new system on the ones already used in the European Research Council and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research. Currently Norway has allocated about NOK 600 million for open area research, which is divided into many categories. The committee calls for increasing the overall budget to NOK 2 billion and having only a few small broadly based panels.
The Research Council of Norway has responded positively to the idea of a more open research system, but questioned parts of the Fagerberg report. The Research Council agrees that the open arena has long been underfunded and that far too many projects worthy of support have been rejected due to financial constraints, according to Arvid Hallén, Research Council of Norway director general.
“The committee raises an important discussion about what constitutes an optimal balance between programme research and the open arena, but its perspective is too narrow,” said Hallén. “The report appears to be working form the assumption that the aim of all the thematically oriented programmes is to promote applied research rather than to develop basic scientific knowledge, and that renewal in research primarily takes place via the open arenas.”
PhDs & Research Barometer
The other key proposal from the Fagerberg report is for the government to allocate one half of the proposed NOK 2 billion in spending towards increasing the number of doctoral students. Norway has traditionally produced few PhD graduates. In the last five years there has been an increase, but the country is still way behind Sweden and Finland.
“We made a calculation of how many we needed,” said Fagerberg. “In many areas, we were not producing enough to fill the demand, particularly in engineering.”
Moreover, the committee called for setting aside about NOK 140 million for active researchers, i.e. those that actually publish. They would automatically get a small amount of funding to support their research, such as for attending conferences. The committee also proposed setting up a research barometer, or a systematic way to measure the results from research, which in turn would shed light on the productivity of Norwegian research. The research barometer would supplement Norway’s current barometer, which was established in March.
“We looked at what was in other places,” said Fagerberg. “The type of data – production and citation – was the same as other countries. The only way was to go one step building on that so that it relates systematically to resources. That is the novelty of this committee.”
The Research Council said the committee’s discussion of performance indicators for research, especially at universities and university colleges, was relevant, but added it would have liked to have seen more focus on the crucial social impacts.