Ten years ago, 13 Norwegian research groups were awarded the status of Centre of Excellence (SFF) with generous funding to provide fruitful conditions for research over a ten-year period. At the time, the scheme represented an entirely new kind of research funding in Norway. “And it really has led to change,” says Director General of the Research Council of Norway, Arvid Hallén.
“In the 1990s the idea of investing targeted funding in elite research was not widely accepted. This seems a bit surprising when we look back,” says Mr Hallén, who at the time was head of the then Division of Culture and Society at the Research Council.
“But, elite research was an emerging trend at the time,” he continues. “The Research Council itself had a small programme for top-level research in medicine, and dedicated specialist centres had been established in other countries.”
In June 2000 the Research Council submitted a report on a Norwegian Centres of Excellence scheme to the then Ministry of Education, Research and Church Affairs. The Council had studied similar schemes in other countries, particularly Denmark, where the centres were very successful.
“The time was ripe in Norway as well,” he says. In June 2002 – after two years and a comprehensive selection process – Norway’s 13 new Centres of Excellence (SFF) were announced.
“The SFF scheme has been even more effective than anticipated,” asserts Mr Hallén. “It has helped to change the research landscape in Norway at several levels.”
“First of all, the centre scheme has managed to cultivate truly top-notch research groups. Our intention has been fulfilled. Secondly, the centres have had a very high profile internationally, thereby helping to promote greater internationalisation of Norwegian research. Thirdly, the scheme has influenced and altered the thinking of host institutions in relation to both research and research management. And it has done much to refine the institutions’ approach to resource allocation as well. Finally, the concept of the centre scheme has paved the way for a funding philosophy that Norway needs breadth in research and optimum conditions for top research environments,” says the director general.
Discussions and objections
Mr Hallén is of course aware of the fact that there are divergent views on the SFF centre scheme, and freely admits that there have been also some problems with the scheme during the past ten years which the Research Council has needed to solve. There has also been debate concerning the need for elite research centres at all.
“All in all no serious objections have been raised to implementing a funding scheme of this type. In addition, we see that the significance of the centres are much greater than the direct funding from the Research Council would indicate. Our experience is that many of the centres have attracted substantial funding from other sources. They have their own magnetic field,” he states.
Most of the debate has centred around the selection process. “It is a huge responsibility when the entire Norwegian research community mobilises to prepare the best possible grant proposals. Organising an optimal selection process is a tall order, and there will always be room for improvement. It is therefore reassuring to know that the top international researchers who have been involved in the efforts express clear satisfaction in our processes,” he says.
Centre schemes have played an important role in the development of research during the past ten years, and several new types of centres have emerged underway. The 14 initial Centres for Research-based Innovation (SFI) were launched in 2006. This scheme shares many similarities with the SFF scheme, but the SFI centres focus on research questions of relevance to innovation in the business sector and involve companies as partners. “We have seen very interesting developments in this area,” says Mr Hallén, “and we have received very good feedback on the scheme.”
An additional eight centres were awarded SFF status in 2006, and 2009 saw the establishment of yet another centre scheme with the launch of eight Centres for Environment-friendly Energy Research (FME).
“The FME scheme has really brought something new,” states the director general. “We based the scheme on the SFI model, but with a direct focus on and increased funding for a specific field of importance. Our experience has been very positive. It is an effective way of structuring and linking together leading research groups, while at the same time building a solid bridge to the international research arena in the field.”
Potential for more centre schemes
The recently-published evaluation of the Research Council calls the centre schemes a success. The international evaluation panel emphasises the importance of access to strategic resources to implement this type of change in the research system.
“In our input to the new government white paper on research and in our main strategy we have identified centre schemes as a type of funding instrument it would be valuable to apply in other contexts,” says the director general.
“The status as an SFF centre inspires and is constructive for the research groups. They receive both resources and a stamp of excellence. The long-term perspective is particularly vital. In the feedback from the centres, long-term funding emerges as the most important aspect of centre status. Norwegian research groups seldom experience such financial flexibility.”
“Nevertheless, there are challenges involved in handling the time limitations implicit in the centre schemes,” asserts Mr Hallén. “The 13 initial SFF centres are facing some of these now that their ten-year funding period is drawing to a close. Some of them will continue their activities as centres with funding from other sources. Others have submitted applications for SFF status under the third SFF funding round – with an entirely or partially new constellation of partners. And for others the natural next step is to reorganise and go back to business as usual.”
“Regardless, the SFF centre scheme has become an essential funding scheme for the Norwegian research community,” Director General Hallén concludes.