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The Research Council of Norway 2017: Report of the Executive Board

Norwegian research is improving. There is more research being carried out, publication rates are higher, collaboration is expanding and the structural reform has laid a foundation for greater consolidation and better distribution of tasks. The quality of research is also rising, although Norway still lags behind the top research nations. In companies, research and innovation have become key tools in efforts to support restructuring and increase competitiveness. Investment in private sector R&D is expanding rapidly, and encompasses an increasingly wider array of industrial segments. Participation in the European arena is also on the rise.

Read the full Annual report (in Norwegian only).

Increased investment in research

For the first time, public allocations to research exceed the target figure of one per cent of Norway’s gross domestic product. In the priorities set out in the Long-term plan for research and higher education, the Government has demonstrated both its willingness and its capacity to strengthen research and innovation activities. The Research Council of Norway administers more than one-fourth of the public research funding, and thus plays an important role in research and innovation efforts. In the view of the Executive Board, the Research Council’s activities in 2017 have played an important role in the positive development of the Norwegian research sector. The annual report documents a clear, positive contribution to enhancing scientific quality in research, generating greater value creation through research-based innovation, and promoting research designed to meet major societal challenges. In sum this contributes to creating a better functioning research system that can encourage more knowledge-based social development.

In the view of the Executive Board, the authorities have shown great confidence in the beneficial impacts of initiatives carried out via the Research Council. In the first three years of the Long-term plan’s period, through 2017, the Research Council’s budget has grown by NOK 2.1 billion. In 2017 alone, the Research Council received a budget increase of more than NOK 0.5 billion. The new funding has been largely targeted towards developing world-class research environments, establishing research infrastructure and increasing participation in Horizon 2020.  Bolstering industry-oriented research has also been a priority, as well as thematic priority areas related to environment-friendly energy. More funding has been invested in research that leads to results and outcomes. The capacity of research groups has expanded, as evidenced by the increase in project investments of nearly NOK 800 million in 2017. The Executive Board is of the overall opinion that the Research Council has made good use of the funding placed at its disposal, but there is a need both to reduce budget transfers and, at the same time, to cultivate greater understanding that a certain level of transfers is essential for meeting obligations and ensuring stable and reliable funding. It is unfortunate that this capital has been reduced in the budget deliberations in the Storting two years in a row.

New strategies

The Executive Board plays an important role in developing sound scientific, thematic and structural advice as a basis for stakeholders’ activities to develop the research and innovation system regionally, nationally and internationally, and for the Research Council’s input to the government ministries. In 2017, two new strategies were drawn up as part of the follow-up of the Research Council’s main strategy, Research for Innovation and Sustainability.

The Strategy for Innovation in the Public Sector takes as its starting point that state and municipal stakeholders account for half of the value creation in Norway, and that innovation and renewal are essential for the continued sustainability and development of the welfare society. The objective is to make research-based innovation just as important an element within the public sector as it is in the business sector, with the Research Council assuming a correspondingly active role. This will be achieved by improving coordination within the research and innovation system, implementing joint solutions and coordinating efforts, as well as through initiatives focused on digitalisation, service innovation and smart public procurement.

The strategy Research for Sustainable Societal and Industrial Development is based on the broader Norwegian effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The strategy presents three main action points: giving priority to sustainability when funding research and innovation in areas where Norway has special advantages; further developing funding instruments targeted towards sustainability challenges; and strengthening sustainability perspectives in international R&D cooperation. The strategy draws attention to the role that research and innovation can play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and demonstrates how the Research Council will incorporate sustainability perspectives into its activities as well as the implications this will have in various areas.

The Research Council’s main strategy also provided the point of departure for input to the revised Long-term plan. Global and cultural change was proposed as a new overall priority area, with research on multi-cultural society, migration and integration; inequality, poverty and development; and democracy, security and conflict as suggested themes. Recommendations included increasing public allocations to research to 1.25 per cent of the gross domestic product by the end of 2022; expanding the national competitive arenas to comprise one-third of the public investments; and continued use of quantified investment plans in selected areas, including in ICT and digitalisation, where there is a wide range of needs and opportunities. Proposals relating to important changes in the research and innovation system were also put forth, including the need to establish a fiscal rule for efforts involving cross-sectoral research and the need to further develop the “21” strategy processes to make them a better targeted strategic tool for policy development in a wider range of sectors and areas.

The Research Council has also provided input to Norway’s proposal for priorities in the coming Ninth EU Framework Programme. Efforts here were centred on areas in which Norway can play a prominent role, areas that complement activities at the national level, and areas that are considered to be of strategic importance for resolving global and European societal challenges. Against this background, the recommendations were to promote greater focus on green innovation; blue growth and ocean research; societal security and social cohesion; and on digitalisation as a key overarching area.

Clear results

In recent years, the Research Council has implemented a new performance management system for reports to government ministries. As part of this system, the Government has set five objectives for the Research Council with clearly-defined target areas for enhancing scientific merit, increasing value creation, addressing major societal challenges, promoting a well-functioning research system and providing sound advice. At the same time, indicators have been established to measure performance in related strategic areas. Analyses of each target area are now in place that give insight into the results, impacts and societal outcomes of Research Council activities within a more systematic framework than was previously the case. This reinforces the Executive Board’s conviction that the Research Council’s instruments are functioning as intended.

The Research Council’s centre schemes deliver research at the highest international level. The Council’s open competitive arenas – the FRIPRO scheme for independent projects and the Programme for User-driven Research-based Innovation (BIA) – cultivate outstanding research and innovation. Thematic research programmes and activities deliver results that are relevant, scientifically sound and highly innovative. The Research Council administers a research infrastructure initiative that is instrumental in promoting national and international collaboration on, and task distribution relating to, state-of-the-art infrastructure. In addition, a cohesive set of instruments have been established to encourage and support greater participation in EU and other international research activities.

A performance management system inevitably elicits an assessment of whether the existing status quo is good enough, and what could be improved. In the context of investment activities, there is a need to further develop the connection between thematic research programmes and open competitive arenas. An effort must be made to design an improved customer interface, coordinated application processes and a follow-up regime that facilitates better overall performance. Central to these efforts is the follow-up to the conclusions in the report from the government spending review that greater importance must be attached to scientific quality. The demand for international collaboration must be upheld. New steps must be taken to ensure that programme results reach the users, and thereby further promote knowledge-based social development. More resources must be invested in the Council’s advisory activity to enable the provision of clearer, more knowledge-based advice to the ministries and all the stakeholders in the research and innovation system.

The overall assessment of the Executive Board for 2017 is that the Research Council has shown satisfactory achievement of objectives and good results. There are clear indications that funding instruments connected to the target areas Greater scientific merit and Greater value creation within trade and industry are having a positive impact and are successfully meeting performance targets. These are areas that have been the target of major investments in the past years. The results and performance in the target area Address major societal challenges are merely acceptable. While the benefit to society, relevance and scientific merit of the activities implemented are all satisfactory, the overall use of available resources has been too weak. It bodes well that the Research Council can point to excellent results in the target area A well-functioning research system, an area in which the Council has seen substantial growth in resources aimed at mobilising wider participation in EU activities and improving research infrastructure. Performance in the target area Sound advice is judged to be merely acceptable as the Research Council's most important users report that they have experienced significant deficiencies in the Research Council’s advisory services. This is despite the fact that the Council has continued to draw up forward-looking strategies and input in 2017 as well.

Less administration

Alongside the growth in the research budget, the resources for administering it have been reduced to increase efficiency. In 2017, the Research Council has used NOK 32 million less in expenditures than anticipated in the original planned budget for overall activities at the beginning of the year. Viewed in the context of a considerable increase in the research budget, this means that the Research Council’s internal administration has to do more for less. This challenge has been met by introducing efficiency measures, reducing new hiring and placing greater focus on digitalisation. Efforts have been made to rationalise services by introducing new routines, increasing digitalisation, adjusting the frequency of deliverables and coordinating activities, as well as by dismantling certain functions, such as the in-house library and printing office. As part of the effort to enable the Research Council to deliver more targeted results within a more stringent financial framework in the long term, a new business strategy was drawn up in 2017 for the period from 2018 to 2022.

The business strategy considers how the Research Council’s investment role, advisory role, dialogue partner role and task-performing role can be developed to better fulfil Council goals. The strategy emphasises activities that will enable the Council to perform its social mission in a more integrated, cohesive and forward-looking manner. It sets out measures for enhancing user-friendliness and client orientation in Research Council services, and for implementing more unified leadership, better management and development of functions and tasks, improved coordination of application processing procedures across programmes and a new framework for project portfolio management, as well as measures for rationalisation, simplification and standardisation, largely through increased digitalisation. As the first follow-up of the new business strategy, a reorganisation process carried out at the end of the year will be instituted starting in the second quarter of 2018.

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