Pushing research further with new centres of excellence

The Research Council of Norway has granted 13 research groups status as Norwegian Centres of Excellence, replacing the first ones established ten years ago. The initiative promises more than NOK 2 billion over a ten-year period to specialized R&D projects nationwide covering a wide breadth of disciplines.

The scheme dates back to June 2000, when the Research Council of Norway first proposed establishing long-term financing of research centres in a report submitted to Norway’s Ministry of Education. The proposed Norwegian Centres of Excellence were based on similar successful schemes in other countries, such as Denmark. However, it represented an entirely new kind of research in Norway, according to Arvid Hallén, Research Council director general.

 

“In the 1990s, the idea of investing targeted funding in elite research was not widely accepted,” Hallén said in a recent Research Council article. “This seems a bit surprising when we look back. But elite research was an emerging trend at the time. The Research Council itself had a small programme for top-level research in medicine, and dedicated specialist centres had been established in other countries. The time was ripe in Norway as well.”

 

Elite Research Since 2002

The Research Council started by establishing 13 new Centres of Excellence (SFF) in June 2002 with an overall annual budget of NOK 155 million over ten years. These are now winding down and about to be replaced by the 13 new Centres of Excellence. However, some of the basic research from the first centres has already led to immediate benefits to society.

 

For example, both of the SFF centres carrying out brain research have generated breakthrough findings. With the discovery of grid cells in the brain, researchers at the Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have found a decisive link between mechanisms for memory and spatial location. The discovery is considered significant in helping develop a cure for age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

 

“We discovered signals in the brains of rats that code distance and direction between spatial positions in a room,” said Edvard Moser, CBM director, in a Research Council interview. “The discovery of this grid pattern in the brain took us completely by surprise. Before 2005 no one though that anything like this existed in the brain.”

 

The council says the original 13 centres have achieved a broad range of research results over the ten-year period, not only in subject area, but also in terms of their location along the axis between basic research and applied research. The Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research in Bergen has created a global climate model that is used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, while the International Centre for Geohazards (ICG) is at the core of an international research project charting the risk of landslides throughout Europe due to climate change. Together with ICG, researchers at the Centre for the Study of Civil War have mapped potential areas of conflict in Asia based on natural and social conditions.

 

Ten More Years

The 13 new centres will continue where the first 13 left off, albeit on different topics. The council selected the new research groups out of 139 research applications, but in the end picked four in Oslo, three in Bergen, four in Trondheim, one in Ås and one in Tromsø. The centres will receive a total of more than NOK 200 million per annum for a maximum of two five-year periods, whereas ordinary allocations are typically for only a three-year period.

 

“Researchers who are seeking a role at the cutting edge of their international fields need flexible, long-term funding to give them a chance to take bolder steps,” said Kristina Halvorsen, Minister of Education and Research in connection with the announcement of the new centres in October 2012.

 

 “All our experience indicates that these 13 news centres will deliver research that makes a lasting impact for years to come,” added Hallén. “They are already well-trenched research groups. This long-term funding gives them the chance to make their mark in the forefront of international research.”

 

The main criteria in selecting the new centres has not only been their scientific merit, but also the added value of creating a centre, national and international co-operation, gender balance, ethics, and environmental impact. The 13 new Centres of Excellence that will receive allocations starting in 2013 comprise the following:

 

University of Oslo

Centre for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan

The Legitimate Roles of the Judiciary in the Global Order

Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics

Norwegian Centre for Mental Disorders

 

University of Bergen

Birkeland Centre for Space Science

Centre for Intervention in Maternal and Child Health

Centre for Cancer Biomarkers

 

Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)

Centre for Autonomous Marine Operations and Systems

Centre of Molecular Inflammation Research

Centre for Neural Computation

Centre for Dynamics of Biological Diversity

 

University of Tromsø

Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate Environment and Climate

 

Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Centre for Environmental Radioactivity

 

(Fernando, please put the following in a shaded box.)

R&D Highlights

 

In 2009, Norwegian R&D expenditure amounted to NOK 42 billion, leading to an average yearly increase of 2.1% since 2007. Norwegian R&D expenditure represented 1.8% of GDP in 2009.

 

Global challenges, including           energy, environment            and development studies, represented the most important Norwegian thematic priority in 2009, with R&D expenditures in this area reaching NOK 10 billion.

 

In 2009, government           funding accounted for 46% of all R&D expenditure, with industry providing 42%. Other national sources and funding from abroad accounted for 4% and 8% respectively.

 

The amount of R&D funding from abroad has increased five-fold during the last 20 years.

 

(Image credits: Caption: The photo shows a grid cell in the brain’s spatial mapping system. Grid cells were discovered in 2005 at the Centre for the Biology of Memory, one of the original 13 Centres of Excellences. They were first discovered in rats, but are probably found in all mammals. Credit: Geir Mogen, NTNU)

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