Engine Room column


When academic research meets management – On the challenges of research funding and peer review

Illustration: Marika Maijala

What is good science management and why is it needed in the world of academic research which emphasises freedom and independence? Chris Lasse Däbritz, a student of science management and trainee at Kone Foundation in March 2023, shares his impressions and thoughts on the benefits of good management and the freedom of foundations, as well as approaches to peer review.

Two of the most central and intrinsic values in academic research are, without a doubt, freedom and independence. Not surprisingly, managerial approaches to its organisation are often hardly welcome and meet hostile stances in the research community. Still, academic research and its framework conditions have become increasingly complex during the last decades, so the question arises whether free and independent academic research can still exist without a professional organisation and management.

Working as a postdoctoral researcher in third-party-funded projects for almost seven years, I got to enjoy many of the merits of research funding and am not in the position to complain substantially about anything. Still, some reservations and doubts about the overall framework of academic research arose during this time, which cumulated during the Covid pandemic, when I had much time to reflect.

As an outcome of these reflections, I enrolled in the study programme M.P.A. Science Management at the University of Speyer in 2022. My primary motivation for doing so was to better understand my overall working environment and enable me to develop it further, eventually reducing its shortcomings and caveats.

But what does “science management” mean altogether? As a heuristic approach to defining it, I propose to understand a science manager as a person who works at interface positions in any institution concerned with science in a broad sense, i.e. including academic research, teaching and the third mission. The tasks of science managers are output-oriented, strategic and decision-preparing, and they often “interpret” between scientific and administrative staff.

Assuming that science needs proper management to fulfil its actual tasks properly, the Speyer M.P.A. programme aims at educating its students as the future generation of science managers. The programme is extra-occupational and includes lectures and seminars on the current shape of the (German) science system, its legal issues, strategic management, financial accounting, research funding and internationalisation, among others.

The study programme also includes a two-week internship to familiarise the students with the reality of science management. Given my interest in questions of research funding and my scientific connections to Finland, I decided to apply for an internship at Kone Foundation to learn more about research funding in Finland. I came to the foundation’s office at Lauttasaari Manor with various expectations and a bunch of questions, including the following: (1) how do programmes and topics for (thematic) grant calls arise in Kone Foundation, and (2) how does peer review work in Kone Foundation?

Related to the first question, one should say that foundations generally have more freedom in their activities than public organisations. This holds especially regarding their possibility to follow their specific goals and to act as independent players in the system of academic research. Kone Foundation’s vision includes working “for free research, art and culture to flourish in an ecologically sustainable and socially equal Finland”. The yearly general calls, which address applications from the humanities, social sciences and environmental sciences, as well as artistic research, and the current thematic funding programme “Is Democracy Eroding?” fit this strategy perfectly.

From a managerial perspective, however, the question arises of how this funding programme and the related thematic grant calls are developed and how relevant topics emerge. From my point of view, the essential answer is that there are hardly any detailed workflows or checklists for preparing an impactful funding programme or grant call. However, this is definitely not the fault of Kone Foundation but is due to the fluidity of academic research itself. Therefore, one must be constantly up to date and follow which trends and topics are around. For this purpose, Kone Foundation strives to be in contact with as many stakeholders as possible to understand their needs and expectations.

For example, Kone Foundation is well networked in The Association of Finnish Foundations, which aims to map the needs for knowledge, support and train the foundations’ staff and strengthen the foundations in society. When participating in a webinar they organised, I got the impression that the perspectives and approaches of Kone Foundation are widely acknowledged in the Finnish world of foundations. Besides that, I realised that Kone Foundation regularly reflects the attitudes and practices of other foundations, and I was happy to provide some insights into the working programmes and agendas of German foundations, in other words, to fulfil a benchmarking task. From my point of view, this approach to developing programmes and calls can count as a best practice for science management in general since it underlines its service orientation towards its central target group, namely people being occupied with science.

Coming to peer review, I was initially unsure of how offensively I might tackle this topic since, at least in Germany, it is notoriously delicate and kind of a black box in many organisations. So much more, I was surprised how openly Kone Foundation’s peer review principles are documented online and how willingly Kalle Korhonen, Director of Funding, offered me a roadshow through the internal peer review system.

In a nutshell, Kone Foundation solely relies on external reviewers who change every year; one reviewer assesses approximately 90 to 100 applications. Afterwards, the Kone Foundation research funding staff discusses the reviews with the reviewers, makes a shortlist, forwards it to the Foundation’s board of trustees, and the latter takes the funding decision. This workflow apparently lacks a panel review. As explained in the instructions for applicants, this is a deliberate decision: from the point of view of Kone Foundation, a panel review often leads to compromised decisions. Consequently, mainstream research is often funded without considering explorative and potential breakthrough applications.

Until being here, I always had the impression that a panel is a necessary safety mechanism in peer-reviewing processes to prevent and correct faulty, unfair or inappropriate reviews. However, I was soon convinced that such a panel indeed has the named disadvantages, so it is hardly the gold standard.

A panel review is probably necessary for large public funding organisations to stay on top of things and give account to external stakeholders and financiers. Foundations, in turn, can especially function well without a panel review, in my opinion. Instead of the latter, an intelligent combination of remote reviewing by frequently changing experts, personal discussions and final decisions by a board of trustees are more feasible to support academic research and, in consequence, science in general. Besides that, in this way, one can follow a foundation’s vision and goals more effectively since this model allows more flexibility to care about one’s own focus and core values.

Both the development of funding programmes and grant calls and peer review are thus complex challenges for all organisations dealing with them. During my internship, it became clear to me that one has to take attentive care of such complex tasks so that research and science in general benefit as much as possible. Precisely this is the central task of science management, and exactly because of this, the world of science needs professionals who understand science and academic research themselves as well as their framework and administration.

During my stay at Kone Foundation, I had the opportunity to meet such professionals, and thus, I can take home many valuable thoughts and ideas from here. Thank you for this! Hopefully, Kone Foundation also could benefit from getting acquainted with me and science management perspectives on the work of foundations.