Engine Room column: Is the mutual understanding between foundations and universities on the rise?

A scholar working on a foundation grant is still, in many respects, an outsider. Why is that? asks Kalle Korhonen, Kone Foundation's Director of Research Funding in the Engine Room column series.

In the “engine room” here at Kone, we read many reports from grantees. I have been working for Kone Foundation for six years now, and one thing in grantees’ reports has not changed: the weak status of academics with grants at Finnish universities. There is of course a lot of variation, but I keep asking myself why this is so.

A scholar working on a foundation grant is still, in many respects, an outsider. Nobody has up-to-date information on the amount of funding awarded by foundations to researchers based in research organisations, since foundation funding is often invisible in their accounting. Economic realities are strangling Finnish universities, and the situation is far worse in state-funded research institutions, where academics have to be continuously searching for funding in order to do their own academic work.

This problem was supposed to be resolved as far back as 2013, when the Council of Finnish Foundations published their Recommendations for commitment-based research funding (Finnish version). The purpose was to make foundation funding an attractive alternative both for academics and the university. The basic idea of the Recommendations was simple: a grant applicant was to attach to his or her application a written commitment from the faculty guaranteeing working conditions equal to those of previous and/or current researchers. The foundation would then pay a compensation in addition to the grant, (for example, 7% of the grant amount) directly to the university. Moreover, the grants paid to academics would have been included, by and large, in the funding scheme of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

What happened, then? Some universities turned down the Recommendations in early 2014, and as a consequence applicants were unable to attach commitments to their applications. The Finnish Cultural Foundation negotiated on their own with universities and started using a version of the compensation model; little is known of the success of their experiences. Most of the other foundations did not adopt the university compensation. The university compensation route seems to have been a dead end, since a compensation of a few percent is far from the extra expenses paid to the universities in projects funded by the Finnish Academy or the European Research Council. Still, the processes involved in such compensation can come with increased bureaucracy.

One might think that funding research with grants is a win-win situation for universities and funders alike. In principle, universities offer a great deal of flexibility: they are not hierarchical organisations in which every employee aligns their goals with the strategy of the leadership. Instead, they are cradles of academic freedom, where scholars supported by cooperative administrations teach, excel in research, and interact with the local citizenship. Grant-making foundations as well have a lot of freedom, especially if their activities are based on an endowment. On the basis of carefully formulated statutes, very compact organisations support the betterment of society with the aid of research while using the best expertise of the relevant fields in their funding decisions. When research takes place at a prestigious university – which all Finnish universities are – foundations make a considerable impact. The people involved in funding decisions at foundations usually have positive relations with universities, because they are active in both organisations.

With our current attention spans, the events of the early 2010s are ancient history. So how should we proceed in the late ’10s? Finnish foundation funding is still not included in the funding scheme of the Ministry of Education. Let us continue trying to influence that funding scheme; but could we also try to look above the obstacles and see the entire landscape?

The position of researchers working on grants can be improved, for example, if funders and research organisations support their capacities. All kinds of beneficial activities are taking place, and various players can cooperate in this area as well. Supporting academics’ professional identities is important for everyone involved with academic research. It is always necessary to clarify what kind of knowledge is produced by academics and why it is different from conceptions of the world based on everyday experiences – and the fact that a scholar not only interacts with the local culture but also within the scholarly community.

At the moment, many forms of research funding are aimed at solving huge global challenges. One of them is the relationship of civilised societies with technology and the changes caused by it. Discussion on this theme has recently resurfaced in Finland, and some contributors have pointed out the importance of finding common ground for academics and technology developers in order to avoid mutual fears and prejudices. Funders and research organisations can be active in this matter too and also bring together active people from different fields without a sense of artificiality. Indeed, new forms of collaboration are rewarding for academics.

It is important to have a clearer, comprehensive view of current research funding in Finland in order to think about its future. It became evident in a networking meeting with foundations organised by the University of Helsinki in March that personal grants from foundations were the most important individual source of funding for doctoral studies in the early 2010s. Thus, foundations are supporting, in an essential capacity, the academic work that produces a lot of important, basic research and, at the same time, specialists who have focused on questions relevant to both research and society. Such work hardly exists outside of universities. Through collaboration between funders and research organisations we could clarify the funding situation. At the same time, we could form ideas from different funders and research organisations on how research funding can retain its inspiring qualities in the future.

Author

Kalle Korhonen

Writer is the Director of Research Funding at Kone Foundation.