Fresh views on a foreign exchange

December 1, 2006

In a bid to boost science quality, Finland is setting up international funding review panels to offer new insights into research, explains Riitta Mustonen

The Academy of Finland, a public agency that provides funding for high-level science research, receives about 6,000 applications a year. In 2005, it was able to fund only 17 per cent of them.

High-quality scientific evaluation is of fundamental importance in identifying the best research projects. Pioneering approaches to scientific questions that carry a high risk or that are interdisciplinary may challenge the way applications are evaluated.

Over the past ten years, the academy has started to use international review panels. Although final funding decisions are made by the academy's research councils, it calls on more than 1,000 academics, most from abroad, to review and rate the applications. To find the best scientific expertise, the academy has tried to take an active role internationally in evaluation co-operation.

Its goal is to increase the exchange of evaluation expertise with other funding organisations. The academy also aims to assess evaluation outcomes (review statements, scoring) so that the reviewers will have more comprehensive and uniform views on evaluation criteria.

In 2006, the academy's Research Council for Health organised a pilot project for British scientists in London to review grant applications. Forty-six scientists from the UK and Ireland reviewed a total of 234 applications in biomedicine, clinical research, public health research and so on.

The outcome was encouraging. Review statements produced by the British panels should help Finnish scientists see their research from a new angle. The project strengthened the academy's networks and enhanced the evaluation expertise of the personnel.

This exercise, organised at the Finnish Institute in London, provided a unique opportunity for a research funding organisation to arrange evaluation of grant proposals in a new way.

The Research Council for Health is also aiming to collaborate with its counterpart in Sweden, the Scientific Council for Medicine. Both councils have exchanged names of scientists who can act as peer reviewers for the neighbouring funding organisation.

In 2004, the Research Council for Health set up a review panel consisting of four Finnish leading scientists that reviewed 24 grant applications to support strong research environments in Sweden. The result of this co-operation was so promising that in Stockholm in 2006, two panels of 11 Swedish experts reviewed 94 Finnish postdoctoral projects.

In all these cases - in London, Helsinki and Stockholm - the scientists have greatly appreciated the opportunity to network and to get to know how grant applications are being assessed elsewhere.

The academy believes that international co-operation in evaluating grant proposals is one way to improve the peer-review process and to make it more rewarding for all stakeholders.

Riitta Mustonen is director of the Health Research Unit at the Academy of Finland.

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