Moment of truth
Being evaluated is always a moment of truth – it is hard to know whether the evaluators will find weaknesses that an institution itself should have spotted a long time ago. In a large, complex organisation such as the Research Council, anyone looking will find plenty of areas in need of improvement.
Thus, the main conclusion in the report, which was presented on 10 September, gave cause for celebration. Arvid Hallén, Director General of the Research Council, admits that he was very pleased when the report landed on his desk, but he emphasises that the evaluation rightly points out challenges as well.
“We are on the right path; that is clear. But there is still much to be done in a variety of areas,” he says.
(Illustration: Jon Solberg)
“The evaluation does not raise any questions about the Research Council’s organisation or main activities. We have found a way to make the organisation work well within its demanding mandate and complex environment. This gives the best possible starting point for our future efforts,” says Mr Hallén.
“This is precisely what we are supposed to use the evaluation for – to identify the most important areas that need improvement and further development!”
When the Research Council was established in 1993, the main objective was to reduce the fragmentation of Norwegian research and establish a framework for a more coordinated research policy. The first evaluation of the Research Council, carried out in 2001, concluded that the organisation lacked adequate coordination. In addition, the 16 different ministries gave funding and steering signals that left the Council with little latitude to deal with or act as a change agent.
According to the evaluation in 2012, it is this same challenge that the Research Council needs to prioritise in coming years as well.
Has assumed a coordinating role
When the evaluation from 2001 was presented, the Government had established the Fund for Research and Innovation as an instrument to support long-term research and projects across ministries and sectors. In the past 10 years the Fund was used to finance a number of new initiatives under the auspices of the Research Council.
“The Fund has now been terminated, and the system of funding from the 16 ministries remains. What are your views on this?”
“Our situation is of course demanding, but as I read the report, we have managed to assume a coordinating role in the Norwegian research system despite the fragmentation of funding.
We no longer face a ‘mission impossible’ situation – as the evaluation from 2001 put it – even though the present evaluation also recommends that we consider establishing an overarching public research policy body. No matter what happens, we at the Research Council must continue to strengthen our ability to create an integrated whole,” Mr Hallén emphasises.
We will build further on the areas that are successful, and we will address the areas we need to improve, promises Arvid Hallén. (Photo: Sverre Jarild)
Must be a change agent
The evaluation points out that the Research Council has a crucial role to play as a change agent in the Norwegian research system. According to Mr Hallén, this is wholly in keeping with the Research Council’s strategy.
The evaluation report clearly states that such a role requires strategic resources: “Large changes such as the centres programmes and the Large programmes have generally been implemented with help from the Fund for Research and Innovation, emphasising the importance of strategic resources in renewing the research and innovation system.”
“We have emphasised this in our input to the new white paper on research, and it will figure prominently in our input to the budget and research policy in the future,” says Hallén.
“But first of all we are going to read the evaluation thoroughly. We will refer to it frequently in our future activities. We will build further on the areas that are successful, and we will address the areas we need to improve,” he promises.
The knowledge base
The evaluation report describes the role of the Research Council in developing the ministries’ research strategies through the annual budget dialogue, and points to the Council’s major contribution to the production of white papers on research and other national-level strategies. At the same time, it states that the Research Council must do a better job of enhancing the knowledge base and providing good analyses for use in research policy.
“Do you agree with this?”
“I completely agree that we need very good analyses in order to have an integrated perspective while at the same time being a catalyst for change. We have worked a lot with this in recent years, and the report also states that we have produced significant contributions to the knowledge base. But this is an area where we need to develop even more systematically and dynamically,” says Mr Hallén.
Internationalisation – good, but could be better
The evaluation shows that the Research Council does much to promote the internationalisation of Norwegian research, but more work needs to be done in this area as well. The Council needs better targeted instruments to stimulate international research cooperation. According to the report, the greatest challenge in this area is to define goals and priorities more clearly.
“How does the Research Council plan to address this point?”
“Internationalisation is a key component of the Research Council’s overall strategy. We have also adopted a separate Strategy on International Cooperation (2010-2020) containing specific action points designed to improve these areas. For instance, we are making an intensive effort to increase Norwegian participation in the EU Framework Programme for Research, and we are putting special focus on bilateral cooperation with selected countries, such as the US, Canada, China, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa,” says Mr Hallén.
“It is crucial that we have now introduced the principle that internationalisation must be an integral part of all our programmes. In addition to this, we recently established a position for an international director who will ensure that our international efforts have a unified focus.”
Good report card imposes a duty
“What do you value the most about the evaluation?”
“It is both gratifying and important in itself to get a good report card. But I think the most interesting aspect is the analysis of the main challenge that the report outlines for Norway and the role the Research Council needs to play to address this challenge,” says Mr Hallén.
“Norway must accelerate the pace of development of a society that is fundamentally characterised by knowledge and expertise. This requires a knowledge policy that has clear, ambitious goals for renewal. As far as possible, we at the Research Council must be at the forefront of this development so we can seize the opportunities and tackle the needs for change that arise. Research and technological development always has a long-term perspective. This means there is always a risk of thinking too short term and waiting too long to act.”
“The need to enhance quality in Norwegian research is at the top of the list of challenges. We must also work to increase overall investment, and we must have a clear goal of developing an industrial sector that holds a strong position in global markets. Only those companies with the best knowledge and technology can achieve this. These comprise the overarching aspirations set for the Research Council, which the evaluation makes very clear,” Mr Hallén concludes.
From Forskning magazine no. 3/2012