A just-completed evaluation reveals that many of Norway's independent regional research institutes are too small. Mergers with university colleges or other research institutions can strengthen the organisational framework and enhance scientific quality.
The evaluation was conducted by a committee appointed by the Research Council of Norway, and encompasses Norway's 12 independent regional research institutes: Agder Research; International Research Institute of Stavanger (IRIS), Social Science and Development; Møreforsking; Nordland Research Institute; Northern Research Institute (Norut) Alta; Norut Trømso, Social Science Research; Telemark Research Institute (TRI); TRI Notodden; Trøndelag R&D Institute; Vestlandsforsking; Østfold Research; and Eastern Norway Research Institute.
"The evaluation report brings to light some very interesting aspects of the regional research institutes and recommends changes that can improve their management and boost the quality of the research conducted. The Research Council will make use of this input in its strategic planning relating to the Norwegian independent research institute sector," says Anders Hanneborg, Executive Director of the Division for Science at the Research Council.
The evaluation committee recommends that institutes are no longer divided into national and regional institutes. The committee also recommends a shift in the competitive arena affiliation for certain of the regional research institutes.
In the present funding system, all of the regional research institutes are categorised under the competitive arena of social science research institutes. However, some of the institutes have so little of their scientific activity in this area that a change in affiliation is warranted. According to the evaluation committee, Østfold Research, for example, should be moved to the competitive arena for technical-industrial or environmental research institutes, while Møreforsking's department in Ålesund could be moved to the arena for primary industry research institutes.
Scientific quality needs to be strengthened
The evaluation reveals that the regional research institutes produce far fewer scientific publications than their national counterparts. Even when publication figures are adjusted for the fact that the regional institutes serve various functions of an applied nature at the regional level, the figures are lower than those of the national institutes.
The regional institutes are also less successful than their national counterparts at competing for funding under the Research Council's policy-oriented programmes, funding scheme for independent projects, large-scale programmes and centre schemes. In the opinion of the evaluation committee, several of the institutes have such low scores on indicators relating to scientific and scholarly competence that they would normally not qualify for basic funding. However, the regional research institutes do well in the competition for income from the public administration and trade and industry.
The committee recommends that several of the regional research institutes consider entering into closer cooperation with the university colleges in their region, as this would enhance the scientific quality of the research conducted at the institutes.
More cooperation and more mergers
The regional research institutes vary in size; the smallest has four man-years, while the largest has 39. According to the evaluation committee, several of the institutes are too small to maintain an adequate organisational framework and therefore it is recommended that these institutes merge with another research environment or establish an organisational affiliation with a larger environment.
The committee stresses that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between the size of a research group and the calibre of the research. Small research groups can deliver top research results. Nevertheless, it is important that a research group is part of a larger, stronger organisational whole that can provide adequate framework conditions.
The evaluation committee recommends that several regional research institutes are amalgamated into other research environments. (Illustration: Shutterstock) "It is very difficult to maintain high research quality without being affiliated with an established organisation with a professional administration and access to research infrastructure. The Research Council will therefore consider facilitating appropriate structural changes in this regard," says Mr Hanneborg.
He names the upcoming mergers between the Work Research Institute and Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences and NOVA ' Norwegian Social Research and the university college as examples of interesting strategic moves.
The committee recommends that funding be set aside for cooperation, constructive task distribution and highly focused research activities for the social science research institutes and earmarked for projects to study and implement mergers or develop solutions for inter-institutional collaboration.
Changes should be made in basic funding scheme
The regional research institutes currently receive a somewhat lower amount of basic funding than the national research institutes. The evaluation committee states that measures must be implemented to remedy this situation, for example by making a larger proportion of basic funding performance-based and incorporating a greater number of performance indicators.
A Ph.D. scheme for institutes
The independent research institutes represent a resource for researcher training and are valuable partners in doctoral degree education. The evaluation committee proposes that the Research Council establishes a regional Ph.D. institute scheme to provide funding for researchers working at independent institutes to pursue a Ph.D., much like the Industrial Ph.D. scheme, but that would require significantly less funding from the institutes themselves.
In the view of the committee, dedicated research fellowships for the institute sector will place the institutes in a better position to build high-quality research groups. The Research Council, however, believes that fellowship-holders at the institutes should be affiliated with and funded via research projects that are established as a result of open competition. According to the Research Council, this model would harmonise better with the institutes' socially-oriented commissions than the corresponding industrial model.