Centers of Excellence in Norway: Did they work?

Your research isn’t good enough. It’s cited less than your neighbors’ research, less than those you like to compare yourself to. You apply for funding for your work and the feedback is fine, sometimes good — but almost never great. You don’t know how to lead scientists to breakthroughs; in fact, you don’t really lead them anywhere at all.

These are just some of the descriptions of Norwegian research communities given over a decade ago. Our performance was weaker than our Nordic colleagues and our achievements in the European Union’s scientific programs were modest compared to where we could be.

In light of this, the government decided to start a Center of Excellence program. CoEs would be given special working conditions, primarily in the form of excellent funding for 10 years. But they would also have strong leadership, a prominent position in the organization of their home universities, and the opportunity to raise not only the quality of the work in that center but to inspire the pursuit of excellence in other groups.

In 2003, 13 groups started Centers of Excellence, including one at my home university, which I had the privilege to lead for its first six years. The selection process was demanding both for the applicants and for the Research Council of Norway, who described the selection of these centers as resulting from the most comprehensive selection process ever undertaken in Norway. Eight more centers were added in 2008 and the RCN is in the final stages of selecting another eight or so who will start up in 2013.

The original 13 groups are about to reach the end of their CoE funding periods. Has it worked? Did those groups become internationally prominent? Did they have an impact on their universities? Did they contribute to changing the national research landscape?

Was the massive investment made in a relatively small number of researchers a wise strategic move on the part of the government or could that money have been better spent elsewhere?

How should we go forward? Should we continue creating new centers every five years, ad infinitum? Should we re-focus our quality-enhancing efforts through a different concept?

These are some of the questions we will discuss at the opening session of the CASTL Decennium conference, here in Tromsø, this Wednesday, starting at 11:00 a.m. If you’re in town and if you are curious about how politicians and policy makers view this program and its prospects for the future, join me for 90 minutes of discussion. If you aren’t in town, watch this space, and I’ll blog about it afterwards.

When: Wednesday, September 12, 11:00-12:30
Where: TEO H1 Aud 2
Who: Kristin Clemet, currently of Civita, and Minister of Higher Education and Research when the first centers were opened; Arvid Hallén, Director of the Research Council of Norway; Rolf Seljelid, Founder of Norway’s “Toppforsker” program, which preceded the CoE program; and me, both in my capacity as Director of UiT’s first CoE and with an institutional perspective from my current position as Pro Rector for R&D.

Come to get valuable insights regarding the directions Norwegian research funding is taking. Join the debate!

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Abhik Ghosh says:

    My short answer is no. But then …

    If the question is whether the Centers led to good numbers of excellent publications, the answer is yes. However, my view is that the money would be far better spent by personal grants to the excellent researchers themselves and leave it to them to build their own collaborative networks. In their present form, the Centers revolve around some excellent researchers, but also include significant numbers of mediocre ones, the hope being that the former will somehow give the latter a leg up. That doesn’t happen; it’s against human nature!

    Much as I admire the admire the Scandinavian welfare state, science is emphatically not a welfare state. Science (or scholarship in general) is often individualistic and competitive. Good ideas don’t emerge from committees, but in solitary moments of reflection, or in a conversation between two like-minded colleagues, or at the most among three good friends over beer! I have been a YFF grantee (Yngre Fremragende Forsker) as well as a member of a CoE (the CTCC, Center for Theoretical and Computational Chemistry) and my unambiguous conclusion is that the former was more effective. The Toppforsker program initiated by Prof. Seljelid was a right step and the way forward is to reestablish that program, strengthen it, and make it widely available across all fields of research (not just medicine, as it was, in its earlier incarnation).

    The main problem is that the CoEs can’t make up for a lack of a culture of excellence:

    (a) Hirings of permanent staff typically occur from among a department’s own former students, and not frequently from among the chair’s own students and protegés. I could understand such inbreeding 15-20 years ago, when, scientifically speaking, Tromsø was a sleepy little town. But it’s unthinkable, indeed unconscionable, in this day and age. It’s sad to see that many of these new hires have absolutely failed to come up with new ideas and make their own mark, whereas in many other Western countries (as well as in Asia), hotshot young faculty members have no trouble making a name for themselves within the first five years of their independent careers.

    (b) The inbred culture is also closely tied to a lack of internationalization in research. Yes, the campus is full of international students, but how many of my colleagues bothered to attend a major conference this past summer? How many gave an invited talk? Precious few, I’d bet.

    (c) The Research Council of Norway has generally been better than local bodies such as Departments, Faculties and University Boards in giving grants based on excellence. Yet, much of the RCN’s vision has been doomed because of two signal flaws.

    First, although the RCN grants are awarded based on excellent research plans, there is no mechanism for rewarding excellent delivery of research results, or for penalizing nondelivery. As such, many grants simply promise the sun or the moon, but when it comes to papers in top journals (forget Science and Nature), including leading journals in major disciplines (say physics or chemistry), there is scant evidence of delivery.

    Second, vast sums of the RCN’s money is tied up in special programs (NANOMAT and the like) which are deemed strategic. Yet it’s hard to see that these programs have really delivered. Where is the strategic dividend? Where are the hot nanotech companies that the government envisioned, or for that matter hot nano papers in Science or other leading journals? They just ain’t there. (Granted, there have been quite a few papers in second- and third-tier journals).
    Ineffective research funding policies have led to the absurd situation where 20% of the faculty members (at my department, this University or elsewhere in the country) produce 80% of the research output! And yet the hardworking 20% of the staff seldom receive extra support from their local milieus. So you published a paper in Nature, the conversation typically goes, don’t expect that qualifies you for any extra support from the department!

    It’s these 3-4 problems in concert that, in my view, are strangling Norwegian science. In brief: remove as many special programs and artificial barriers as possible, greatly expand the FRIPRO program, reestablish the Toppforsker program, and support the smartest and most prolific researchers (as opposed to back-room dealers and paper-pushers) on a continual basis as a matter of national interest.

  • Abhik Ghosh says:

    Sorry about the typo above. It should be: Hirings of permanent staff typically occur from among a department’s own former students, and not infrequently from among the chair’s own students and protegés.


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