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Social science research institutes a national asset

An evaluation of social science institutes shows that they have made important contributions to policy and social development at many levels. The institutes do a good job of cooperating with, and understanding the needs of, their clients and various users.

The Research Council of Norway appointed a panel of Nordic experts to carry out an evaluation of the 22 social science research institutes receiving public basic funding through the Council. The panel was headed by Professor Kerstin Sahlin of Uppsala University.

The evaluation report is available for download in the right-hand column.

Important for policy and social development

“One of the evaluation’s main conclusions is that these institutes are a national asset – they make important contributions to policy and social developments at many levels. They provide an important forum for exchange between research and practitioners in the area of policy design,” states Anders Hanneborg, Executive Director of the Division for Science at the Research Council.

The social science institutes make important contributions to policy and social developments at many levels, says Anders Hanneborg. “This was clearly evident in the many impact cases that the institutes submitted to the panel. The relevance of their activities is demonstrated by the wide range of their impact, from regional business development to international policymaking.”

The panel recommends that the government should continue to invest in this arena. The panel also found that the institutes vary widely in terms of focus areas, internal organisation and scientific publication.

“The best institutes are very effective at combining quality and societal relevance. They have a clear understanding of the synergies between the publicly funded research they carry out and the research commissioned by clients,” explains panel chair, Kerstin Sahlin.

“The success of the institutes depends on their ability to combine this with both internally motivated research and the needs of their clients, including the need to address entirely new research questions.”

“We also see that some of the institutions should work more closely with their users to define issues related to – and to disseminate the results of – their research more effectively,” says Ms Sahlin.

Oriented towards scientific publication

Social science institutes account for approximately 15 per cent of the overall turnover in the institute sector, but represented close to 30 per cent of the sector's publication points. In other words, they are more oriented towards scientific publication than other institutes in the other arenas.

Professor Kerstin Sahlin of Uppsala University headed the panel of Nordic experts , (Photo: Kristian Pohl, Vetenskapsrådet) Within the social science institutes, the institutes classified by the panel as "internationally oriented" produce the most scientific publications per researcher full-time equivalent (FTE). The welfare and society institutes display somewhat lower production levels, and the regionally anchored institutes produce the least.

“The most productive institutes publish on a par with the best Norwegian universities. However, it is also important to point out that key aspects of the institutes’ activities are disseminated via other channels than those covered in the underlying bibliometric materials,” Ms Sahlin adds.

Many successful in internationalisation, others have room for improvement

The panel found that the institutes’ international cooperation on projects and publications was satisfactory and more successful than quantification based on the EU Framework Programmes indicates on its own.

But there is wide variation between the institutes here as well, and the panel recommends more individualised objectives for international cooperation based on the specific purpose and resources of each institute. 


To the government: 

  • The social science institutes play important roles in the Norwegian knowledge system and have a positive influence on the development of policy and society. The government should continue to invest in this arena
  • Government institute policy is in effect the sum of the policies of the ministries that make use of the institutes. While RCN has responsibility for monitoring the sector and managing its core funding, there is no overall policy for the development of the institute sector. The government should prepare an NOU that analyses the present and future role of the institute sector and the arenas of which it is comprised, with a discussion of to which degree a national policy for the sector would be useful and is needed. This is especially important given the considerable changes that are taking place in the public administration of key sectors, in the structure of regions/counties and in the higher education system
  • The sector principle is a key element of Norwegian research policy doctrine. The government should ensure that sector ministries maintain sustainable research strategies that include consideration of the development and maintenance of research capacity in the institutes, as well as in other parts of the knowledge system


  • Maintain the current set of framework conditions for core funding, but be prepared to advise the Ministry of Education and Research to enforce the conditions more rigorously
  • Encourage further interaction between the institutes and the higher education sector, both in terms of shared positions and in terms of joint projects
  • Take a differentiated approach to the demand that institutes not only participate in international research communities but also engage in international projects, ensuring that the type of engagement required is consistent with individual institutes’ missions and capabilities
  • Consider a process for more frequent follow up of the institutes quality assurance mechanisms, especially in relation to publications outside the conventional scientific channels
  • Engage in a closer dialogue with the institutes and their ‘owners’ in order to encourage better strategy and governance
  • The regionally anchored institutes appear as a distinct group within the arena, potentially requiring funding related to regional needs in addition to the normal requirements of funding through competition. In some cases, their capabilities need strengthening as do aspects of their performance. Consider what policy should be developed to support and strengthen their role 

To the institutes:

  • The variability of practice in the areas of internal quality control, communication with stakeholders and strategy development means that some individual institutes need to address these questions. There may also be scope for collective action, sharing of experiences and learning across institutes via the development of a network for benchmarking and practice improvement
  • PhD training and international engagement are important aspects of the institute role and should be prioritised


Written by:
Therese Farstad. Translation: Glenn Wells/Carol B. Eckmann.
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