Four challenges for funding research with societal goals

Four challenges for funding research with societal goals

Drawing on a recent study of systemic challenges to delivering research funding for societal change and evidence from a recent meeting of research funders, Andreas Kjær Stage, Carter Walter Bloch, Duncan Andrew Thomas, Maria-Theresa Norn and Irene Ramos-Vielba, highlight key gaps between design and implementation in research funding for societal impact.

As part of the PROSECON project, we brought together over 50 research funders from 14 countries to discuss the challenges of how research funding can support societal goals (e.g., UN’s 17 development goals, including reduced inequalities, climate action, and gender equality). In an earlier study, we had identified four challenges for funding research with societal goals based on interviews with funders and principal investigators (PI) within Food Science and Renewable Energy Research in the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway (Fig.1). What we wanted to find, was how widespread these challenges were in Europe and how relevant they were to the wider research funding community. We were not only surprised by the level of interest in societal relevance, but also how uniform these concerns were.

Funding system conversion

Promoting mission-driven research for societal goals is a step change in funding practices. It requires a shift from funding and assessing stand-alone projects towards coordinating efforts towards specific ends requiring new research funding arrangements. So far, the first generation of challenge-oriented funding approaches remain standalone funding programs and are uncoordinated with other programs or funders. Lack of experience and tools for working with challenge-oriented funding aims is an issue. Funders tend to rely on familiar funding approaches developed to pursue excellent science or strengthen academic-industry interactions.

Funders tend to rely on familiar funding approaches developed to pursue excellent science or strengthen academic-industry interactions.

When we asked funders to assess whether their respective national funding system is currently geared to foster solutions to complex societal challenges. Only 9% said their systems were to ‘a high extent’; 72% replied ‘to some extent’ and 19% said ‘not at all’. Interestingly, funders presenting from Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, countries known to be trailblazers of societal funding agendas, felt confident their systems were well positioned. These responses confirmed this challenge is both current and widespread, but perhaps to a higher degree outside northern Europe sample.

Lack of maturity in design mechanisms

Funders find it challenging to design funding programs with societal goals alongside academic and economic ones. Even the most societally oriented programs still prioritise academic and economic goals. These three objectives can be in conflict. Generally, mechanisms to promote academic and economic goals are more mature than those for societal ones. We found funders use at least three main societal design mechanisms to promote societal objectives:

– Thematic (encouraging or requiring specific research areas or themes)

– Impacts (focused on specific desired outcomes and effects of research)

– Collaboration (requesting participation of specific types of actors in the funded research)

Funders were ambivalent about these mechanisms, yet appreciated they are currently the best tools available. They noted the need to compromise on academic quality to source enough research projects within narrow thematic areas set by policymakers. Difficulties with giving societal objectives enough credit in funding allocation decision situations, due to impact measures that were less precise than for academic and economic outcomes. Funders also struggle to involve non-traditional actors, such as NGOs, public organizations, and soft-hard science partners, in tackling broad and complex societal problems. Instead, they tend to focus on involving private firms and researchers from adjacent fields.

Funders also struggle to involve non-traditional actors, such as NGOs, public organizations, and soft-hard science partners, in tackling broad and complex societal problems.

The participating funders indicated the extent to which they experienced these challenges. Having to work with vague societal impact measures (89%), with narrow themes mandated by politicians (63%) and struggling to involve non-traditional actors (68%) were their current challenges. In our study, we focused on public funders in three northern European countries, but the responses showed that private funders and funders all over Europe seemingly also experience these challenges.

Research practices and networks are key

Funding plays a central role in defining the scope, content and direction of public research. Yet, most studies to date have been unclear about how funding actually shapes research networks and practices to enhance societal goals (a major motivation for launching the PROSECON study). Prior to the event, we undertook in-depth case studies that pointed to four dimensions of how funding directly shapes these networks and practices: interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, prioritised research problems, and user-oriented outputs. We contrasted 12 principle investigators’ statements about their networks and practices before and after acquiring societally-targeted project grants. We found that such funding does indeed enable inter- and transdisciplinary collaborative networks and facilitate building of cumulative experience for project participants on how to manage such networks.

The funding we studied also encouraged research practices that prioritise addressing societal research problems and foster user utilisation and appropriation of research outputs, whilst at the same time maintaining researcher autonomy. Our cross-case analysis revealed three interesting dynamics: pre-acquisition conditions of societally-targeted dimensions seemed to determine how much shaping might occur from the funding; whether a dimension had been encouraged or made compulsory by the research funding program made little difference to how much shaping occurred; and involvement of societal actors seemingly led to more shaping across the board.

In the workshop we asked the participating funders to guess which of three factors that shape the societal orientation of funded research the most: 45% rightly chose previous societal practices and networks over thematic specifications and personal characteristics, although funding policies tend to focus on the latter two. In contrast when it came to views on conditionality: Only 18% rightly chose no, revealing a misunderstanding of how researchers interpret funding calls.

Researchers have and co-use multiple grants

Studies often address single grants in isolation, but particularly with societally-targeted projects, researchers pull in funding from other grants in a way that moderates or amplifies their outcomes. These interactions can be both monetary and non-monetary, involving flows of resources, people, infrastructure and knowledge whenever grant durations overlap. In our study, every researcher had a unique funding situation. Some also had significant numbers of concurrent grants, ranging from three up to eleven at the same time (including the societal grant). The scale of this phenomenon meant we would have missed 78% to 98% of the researchers’ total funding budgets if we had only considered their societal grants alone.

We found that cross-grant interactions occurred often irrespective of researcher role. They happened between grants where the researcher was a PI, when they were a Co-Investigator or simply a team member. They also occurred across different grant types (inter/transdisciplinary and across domestic and non-domestic funders. Synergies arose from this co-use. This reportedly led to getting more outputs per grant. It also enabled better prospects to win future grants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers reported difficulties managing multiple grants at once.

65% acknowledged that their funding databases did not capture whether researchers had or co-used multiple grants for similar goals.

Funders at the workshop reported being aware of these issues: 78% thought it was common in their country for well-funded researchers to work with multiple grants; and 100% believed researchers they funded in their country might co-use grants (and having cross-grants interactions). However, 65% acknowledged that their funding databases did not capture whether researchers had or co-used multiple grants for similar goals. This makes it highly challenging to design funding to account for these dynamics.

Challenges at every level

Our main takeaway from the PROSECON study, and from engaging funders from across Europe with our findings, seems to be that societally targeting of research funding is riddled with. We hope opportunities to share knowledge like this and to bridge gaps between different understandings of how funding works, bring us closer to moving forward past these challenges. We encourage funders to discuss how to address these challenges jointly, as these conversations are increasingly necessary if research is  to address the most difficult and urgent societal problems.


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