Evolution of funds: New ways to spend big on public research


OECD countries are spending big on new forms of funding public research

By Eugene Sebastian

Alain de Botton once said that most business meetings involve one party elaborately suppressing a wish to shout at the other: “just give us the money”. Wouldn’t it be easier if it were just the case for public research funding?

Funding for public research is evolving. Increasing competition for talent, ideas and funds is forcing governments to look at new ways to fund research in a more efficient manner and in ways that fosters innovation.

There are two well-established approaches to funding outstanding research. One involves institutional core funding awarded to universities and not directly tied to projects or programs. Such arrangements may cover mid- to long-term basic funding guarantee, assigned to budget and include performance-based measures. Another approach uses project funding aimed at individual or groups. Such funding scheme is highly competitive and outcome-oriented. Projects funded also tend to be time period specific.

Big spending, Large Ambitions

In OECD countries, funding instruments are changing. More countries are steering towards a third way, the conceptual space in-between institutional core funding and traditional project funding.

According to a new OECD report, ‘Research Excellence Initiatives’ (REIs) is a new funding tool on the rise. REIs are a form of government-level funding that is deployed to carry out ambitious, large-scale, complex research agendas. Funding is directed to selected research organisations and institutions. The Australian Research Council (ARC) Centres of Excellence, Japan’s Global Centres of Excellence program and its World Premier International Research Centre Initiative are just a few examples.

What’s unique about this funding arrangement is that it is not provided to all research organisations, only those “considered exceptional on the basis of an assessment of excellence”. Funding is long term, at least a minimum of four years. The process is highly competitive and all applications are peer-reviewed. Funding given is large, at least over a USD1 million a year. Research undertaken needs to be interdisciplinary and co-operative, having high-impact and invariably high-risk. REIs focus can be wide or narrow targeting challenges such as climate change or water.

REIs also allow for greater flexibility than other forms of funding, notably in terms of managing resources and hiring researchers. Centres of Excellence for instance usually have faster and more flexible recruitment processes. In some cases, they offer professorships and tenure track positions with attractive packages in terms of research facilities. Its advantage is its ability to attract talent. REIs are also great platforms for building future workforce training especially through post-doctoral and doctoral training.

The OECD survey results show research funding structures vary across the OECD. Some countries organise one REI, while others have several. Norway and Sweden for instance have the most REIs with clear purpose. The Norwegian CoE scheme and the Swedish Linnaeus Grants emphasis on linkages between university and industry directed at national priority areas.

Survival of the more competitive

There are similarities and differences among national schemes across OECD countries. The differences involve program focus, selection regulations and processes, and structural characteristics. What is common however are the rational behind REIs. Three goals particularly stand out.

First, it is a means to improve national scientific competitiveness. In a global national innovation system, national innovation systems are in constant competition for the best talent, ideas, goods and services. REIs offer an effective means to encourage national competition. And universities are fierce competitors. Only the best will succeed. Korea’s is a case in point. Its Brain Korea 21 Program is acutely aimed at putting Korea among the world’s top ten in science citations. While its World Class University Program is aimed squarely at placing three of its universities among the world’s top 30 by 2015.

Second, it creates an environment for improved quality in research. REIs “foster concentration of exceptional researchers in exceptionally well-equipped working environments”. Ireland and Russia are investing heavily on upgrading its physical research infrastructure. New Zealand, Slovenia and the United States encourages cross border movement between universities, research organisations, industry and others. Japan emphasises the training of early-career researchers.

Thirdly, REIs helps recruit outstanding personnel. Governments are eager to attract the best talent. “Outstanding scientists are clearly needed to conduct excellent research”. REIs effectively helps offer favourable conditions such as “long-term grants, generous funding or new pathways of collaboration that may be difficult or even impossible through other programs”. The Korean World Class University program invites internationally renowned researchers to co-operate with the faculty and to establish new academic programs. Australia’s ARC Centres of Excellence, the Estonian Development of Centres of Excellence or the Russian National Research University Initiative schemes also explicitly fund the recruitment of international and outstanding personnel.

As competition for talent, ideas and funds grows, “just give us the money” will continue to be dictated by pressures on governments to find better more effective ways to get value for money.

More details of the OECD Report on Promoting Research Excellence: New Approaches to Funding

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s