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How Research Funders Ensure the Scientific Legitimacy of their Decisions: Investigation in Support of Formas Scientific Management
Philosophy and History, KTH, School of Architecture and the Built Environment (ABE), Philosophy and History of Technology, History of Science, Technology and Environment.
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2018 (English)Report (Other academic)
Abstract [en]

This report was commissioned by Formas, to inform its decision-making about scientific management and  how  it  ensures  the  scientific  quality  and  legitimacy  of  its  decisions.  Formas’  structure  and organisation were designed when it was much smaller than today. In particular, it is not clear that the traditional  arrangement  with  a  ‘secretary  general’  (huvudsekreterare)  who  provides  scientific  quality control  of  funding  processes  and  decisions  and  aims  to  ensure  that  proposed  programming  decisions are scientifically based, is sustainable in the new context. The report therefore looks at how equivalent processes  for  ensuring  the  scientific  legitimacy  of  decisions  work  elsewhere  by  looking  at  five  other Swedish funders and five international examples. The use of quality control mechanisms outside the normal hierarchy of committees and administration turns out to be confined to the four funders that are researcher governed. All funders rely on peer and expert  review  so  that – while  there  may  be  ways  for  higher  levels  to  check  the  process  and  ratify  the decisions – de facto it is review panels that make funding decisions. To varying degrees, all the funders considered are transparent about how they make decisions, both in terms of the information they share with  applicants  and  the  outside  world  and  in  terms  of  the  ability  of  higher  decision-levels  within  the organisation  to  scrutinise  processes  done  at  lower  levels.  Except  in  the  researcher-governed  funders, this is normally considered adequate to ensure scientific quality and legitimacy. Peer and panel review of proposals in ‘bottom-up’ or ‘response-mode’ programmes is well understood and conceptually simple. A difficulty most of the funders have to manage is to define and maintain an appropriate  balance  between  the need  to  fund  high-quality  science  and  the  requirement  in  thematic programmes  for  the  research  to  be  societally  relevant.  Funders  tend  to  manage  these  two  types  of programme  separately,  using  different  assessment  criteria  and  often  different  types  of  panel (e.g. involving  ‘user’  or  societal  representatives  in  addition  to  academic  experts  when  funding  thematic research). In many cases, scientific and non-scientific criteria are assessed at the same time (typically including  remote  review  followed  by  a  panel  decision),  but  this  can  lead  to  lack  of  clarity  about  how specific project funding decisions are actually made. The alternative is to assess proposals sequentially: this can mean scientific peer review first and then consideration of non-scientific criteria second (e.g. by peer review at the first stage and panel review including non-academics at the second) or vice versa (e.g. an  outline-proposal  detailing  thematic  relevance  first  and  peer  review  second).  The  advantage  of sequential  treatment  is  that  it  makes  the  judgement  of  scientific  quality  unambiguous,  providing  a clearer basis for trust in the assessment process as a whole. In whatever order the assessment is done, there is a clear scientific quality test that filters out scientifically sub-standard proposals. Not all funders use the kind of rigid distinction between scientific committees and administration seen in  research  councils.  NERC  (UK)  and  NWO  (Netherlands)  have  both  reorganised  lately  in  ways  that reduce  this  distinction  while  maintaining  scientific  oversight  within  the  organisation.  While  all  the funders  consult  with  their  beneficiary  communities,  three  have  started  to  do  so  through  external processes, opening up future research prioritisation to the wider research community (and also in the Netherlands to the public) as part of a process of increasing wider trust in them as useful organisations. Based  on  international  experience,  Formas  could  consider  at  least  the  following  options  for  future scientific management (in addition to the status quo).

• Further increase the internal and external transparency of proposal selection processes, replacing quality control by a secretary general with quality assurance through open processes. This could be accompanied by further development of processes for selecting peer and panel reviewers

• Increase  the  role  of  the  Scientific  Council  in  oversight  and  especially  in  programme  planning, avoiding the need for separate quality control processes

• Implement multi-stage assessment processes, separating scientific and societal assessments

• Alternatively,  the  present  system  could  be  extended  by  having  three  secretaries  general  (one  per department)  or  introducing  scientific  committees  for  each  department.  These  solutions  would however be relatively inefficient

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
Brighton: technopolis |group| United Kingdom , 2018. , p. 82
National Category
Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
Research subject
History of Science, Technology and Environment
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:kth:diva-250285OAI: oai:DiVA.org:kth-250285DiVA, id: diva2:1307597
Note

QC 20190520

Available from: 2019-04-28 Created: 2019-04-28 Last updated: 2019-05-20Bibliographically approved

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