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  • Petri Koikkalainen
    Chair, The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers


    The Pressure to Apply

    Back in the day, a researcher would submit an application to the Academy of Finland or another funding body when he or she had had an unusually good idea. If the idea was good in reality, the chances of getting funding were reasonable.

    Now researchers "have to apply" and university management needs to encourage everyone to apply. The percentages of funding granted have gone down to below 10. Even good applications do not go through and those who give out funding are in a difficult spot.

    Why has a bearable situation become nearly unbearable?

    For many researchers, competitive funding is their only hope of continuing their profession in an ever impoverishing funding situation.

    For universities, it is an important additional resource, and overhead shares are used to fund facilities and administration. Universities also get a bonus for competitive funding through the funding model.

    Politicians and public servants have favoured competition at the expense of "basic funding" - it is viewed as a guarantee of quality, but also as a strategic instrument of control.

    In Finland, direct public research funding constitutes only 44 percent of public research funding, while the rest of it is competitive. In Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands, who succeed better than us in science rankings, the basic funding shares as calculated in the same way are 57, 68 and 78 percent (Olli Poropudas, Helsingin Sanomat August 2, 2015).

    Why is this? It seems that basic funding is sometimes regarded as a block grant or as "basic income", which does not develop operations or encourage towards quality. This is an erroneous view.

    Basic funding is mainly compensation for calculable units of performance, like degrees and research publications. Universities agree on these with the state government in performance agreement negotiations. The state gets what it asks for, and this is why the directive authority of the state as a basic funder is at least as strong as it is when the state is a competitive funder. Even basic funding incorporates the requirement to succeed in competitions for research funding and publication.

    Instead of "basic funding", it would be better to speak about "performance agreement funding", or just "agreement funding".

    The current pain of futile and frustrating work and the need for "dismantling norms" hints at the idea that the funding system as a whole wastes resources.

    Agreement funding should mainly be targeted at the basic tasks of the university. Nevertheless, it gets used for other purposes. More and more working time is being used for securing funding from other state funding sections instead of research, teaching or influencing.

    There are few "ordinary" lecturers or professors in Finnish universities, and a lot of project people. Even combining units does not add to the total number of academic posts, at the time of cuts probably the other way around.

    Despite the difficulty of applying, researcherteachers probably do not want that research funders would have even less funds to distribute. But most of all they want opportunities for working, even to have some kind of a career.

    Rationalizing administration could help focus on central tasks, but the possibilities are limited, if the funding model itself feeds the funding roulette - and inevitably increases research administration.

    Fragmented funding breaks up work and the combination of scarcity and multiple incentives causes application hysteria and disappointment. For example "ordinary" lecturers and professors should be guaranteed the basic preconditions for research or developing teaching without the need to constantly apply for funding for it.

    Would there also be reason to change the funding model at least in such a way that domestic competitive funding would be a sufficient reward in itself, and the pressure to apply would not be increased with the additional levers of the funding model? Being successful with applications or quality publications are, in any case, already considered to be merits.

    Petri Koikkalainen
    Chair, The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers

    • Painetussa lehdessä sivu 36