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Evaluation of Norwegian biological, medical and health science

Many strongholds – but there could be more

Norway has top-notch research groups in biology, medicine and health sciences, but they would benefit from making even better use of the national health registries and biobanks. Norwegian research related to aquaculture also has a very sound framework for activities.

In the course of 2011, more than 60 international experts carried out an evaluation of the Norwegian research communities for biology, medicine and health sciences. It is the largest subject-specific evaluation thus far conducted under the auspices of the Research Council of Norway; nearly 400 research groups were reviewed and appraised. The findings have now been submitted in seven review-panel reports and a joint evaluation report that integrates their findings, conclusions and recommendations.

Anders Hanneborg Photo: Sverre Jarild Anders Hanneborg (Photo: Sverre Jarild) “It has been an impressive undertaking to map out the current situation so thoroughly and make specific recommendations for how to strengthen and organise research activities,” says Anders Hanneborg, Executive Director of the Division for Science at the Research Council. “There is no doubt these recommendations will provide some of the guiding principles for research policy in the years ahead.”

Many dynamic research groups

The seven expert panels that carried out the evaluations have each dealt with an individual field of scientific expertise, resulting in a thorough description of the state-of-the-art of research in the biological sciences, medicine, psychology and the health sciences. The panels also provide input on how to further bolster these environments and their research activities.

The links in the right-hand column open the Principal Evaluation Committee report and panel reports.

More funding for open arenas

The Principal Evaluation Committee was comprised of the heads of the seven panels. The committee identified several issues and challenges that apply across the board. One conclusion is that a larger share of public funding for research should be earmarked for open competitive arenas.

According to the report, “only 10-20% [of Research Council allocations] is an open arena for researcher-driven proposals... a much too small fraction that will restrict the possibilities to take advantage of the creativity of researchers, which is a major driving-force for scientific development.”

The committee also points out that the institutions’ basic funding should be allocated more strategically. In molecular biology research, for example, the relevant panel identified a clear dividing line between groups that succeed in allocating resources and personnel to promising research areas, and groups that as yet have not succeeded.

More funding via national channels

The evaluation panels agreed that a greater proportion of publicly funded research should be channelled through national competitive arenas.
The experts remarked specifically on funding for clinical research, for which “the different health regions are the major funders... However, this form of regional funding is intrinsically less competitive than national funding and therefore does not promote the highest-quality clinical research in Norway.”

The committee also pointed out that Norwegian researchers have little funding from international sources. They should have more incentives and more practical assistance with applying for funding internationally, writes the committee.

Exceptional: biobanks and aquaculture research

Norway has large-scale national health registries, good biobanks, and health surveys extending across many years. These, in combination with the national Norway’s biobanks and health registries are unsurpassed internationally. Photo: HUNT Biobank Norway’s biobanks and health registries are unsurpassed internationally. (Photo: HUNT Biobank) personal identity number system, make it possible for Norwegian researchers to carry out research at the international forefront. Many of the research groups that receive top marks in the evaluation are among those that have successfully capitalised on this potential. The international evaluators recommended that even more groups take advantage of the potential afforded by this valuable data material.

Fish farming is another area where Norway’s research groups stand out for their comprehensive expertise and lengthy experience. Norway can take a clear, internationally leading role in this field and demonstrate knowledge-based, sustainable best practice in the aquaculture industry.

Collaboration and sound infrastructure

Larger researcher groups were generally perceived as more successful than small ones. “Critical mass within research teams more often is achieved through collaboration across institutions,” states the report. “This will at the same time secure the level of multi-disciplinarity needed in modern research.”

The committee also recommends reviewing opportunities to better integrate research at the institute sector level with research at the universities and university college sector.

Infrastructure is another common theme in the report. Investments in decentralised infrastructure and flexible access to scientific equipment are necessary for boosting Norwegian research in the life sciences, states the evaluation, and new methods for data management and portals for access to both clinical and molecular biological data should be considered. Given Norway’s unique advantages with its excellent health registries and biobanks, prioritising infrastructure and data management could open up new research opportunities of great strategic importance for Norway.

Young researchers need more clearly-defined career paths. Photo: Shutterstock Young researchers need more clearly-defined career paths. (Photo: Shutterstock) Clearer career paths needed

Norway does not offer enough attractive, predictable career paths for young researchers. The committee recommends establishing more positions between the post-doctorate and professor positions, both at the universities and university hospitals, as well as opening up more career opportunities for young researchers.

Gender equality is another theme addressed. Although women are well-represented among doctoral students in many disciplines, there are few women in senior positions or with professorships. The reports give specific advice on how the groups themselves and the Research Council could raise the proportion of women.

Most comprehensive evaluation ever

The scientific evaluation encompassed the university and university college sector, including the regional health authorities and the independent research institute sector. An important objective of the evaluation was to review the entire range of scientific fields across institutional borders. Taking part in the evaluation were the research communities of eight universities, six university hospitals, three other hospitals, one specialised and three state university colleges, 13 independent research institutes, three scientific museums and five other entities affiliated with the universities. In total, nearly 400 research groups were evaluated, and roughly 4 400 researchers submitted their résumés to the evaluation panels.

It is the largest scientific evaluation conducted under the auspices of the Research Council of Norway.

Follow-up

The Research Council is asking for input from the institutions and research groups on ways to tackle the various national and local challenges. In January/February 2012 the Research Council will organise a meeting with the heads of the evaluated institutions to review the reports’ findings and recommendations. The Research Council will then draw up a plan for further following up the evaluation.
 

Written by:
Synnøve Bolstad/Else Lie. Translation: Darren McKellep/Carol B. Eckmann
Published:
18.11.2011
Last updated:
27.02.2012