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NordForsk funding labour market research with 50m kroner

NordForsk funding labour market research with 50m kroner

| Text: Björn Lindahl

NordForsk is set to announce close to 50 million Norwegian kroner (€5m) in funding for research on the future of work in the Nordics. The Corona pandemic means the need for research is considerable.

“The pandemic is a game-changer with consequences for both the speed and direction of changes to the labour market,” says Arne Flåøyen, Director of NordForsk in Oslo. 

NordForsk was set up in 2005 with 16 – 17 staff as an institution under the Nordic Council of Ministers. It is at the top of the food chain when it comes to Nordic research and can inject a research programme with a funding booster, to borrow some disease control terminology. 

Arne Flåøyen and Siri Bjarnar welcome the Nordic Labour Journal in near-empty offices in Oslo’s Stensbergsgata 27. There are bottles of disinfectant on all the tables in the common room we enter into. Siri Bjarnar is responsible for the new labour market programme which the NordForsk board decided to pursue at the end of last year. 

“We have established a programme committee with representatives from all the participating national research funding organisations. They will meet towards the end of this month to discuss the shape of the application text,” she says.

At least three Nordic countries

Before NordForsk can start a research programme, funding from at least three Nordic countries must be in place. They must also contribute two-thirds of the total cost before NordForsk can make up the final third. 

“The countries taking part in the new labour market programme are Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Åland and Lithuania,” says Siri Bjarnar. 

When the programme committee has finished the application text, research groups can apply for funding. The same rule applies – researchers from research instituitions of at least three of the Nordic countries that finances the research must participate. The application is then assessed by an international group of experts that mainly consider the quality of the research.

“They rank applications on a scale from 1 to 7, where 7 is top. NordForsk can only fund proposals that get 5, 6 or 7,” says Arne Flåøyen.

Clear division of responsibilities

There is a clear division of responsibilities. The national research funding organisations decide on the research topics. NordForsk is responsible for making sure the research provides value in a Nordic perspective, either because it is especially relevant to the Nordic region, that Nordic data are being used or that the cooperation creates a wider Nordic research platform that will allow the researchers to apply for EU projects, for instance.  

So asking Arne Flåøyen and Siri Bjarnar to tell us what they personally believe are interesting labour market issues is not getting us very far.

“The way we are working now, it is the national funders of research who propose which themes to focus on. That means research priorities are developed in the national systems and then elevated to a Nordic level,” says Arne Flåøyen. 

A Forte initiative

“Swedish Forte took the initiative to launch the labour market programme and saw the value in making it a Nordic venture. I cannot say that they pointed out any particular areas where Swedish funding was missing. It was more a case of them highlighting areas where they believed comparative studies might be useful, areas where Nordic research might bring something extra,” says Siri Bjarnar. 

But some areas still stand out, she says – like how mobility in the Nordic region has been affected by the pandemic, digitalisation and the green shift in the labour market. 

“This is about applying research to help create a knowledge base in order to develop the future of work in a sustainable way,” she says. 

“Take digitalisation. It is nothing new that the labour market is being digitalised, but it is happening so much faster. What was a gradual and continuous process suddenly changed because of the pandemic. External factors suddenly controlled what used to be planned changes,” says Arne Flåøyen. 

“The changes have already happened and this means you cannot simply go back to how it used to be. We have a new starting point.” 

Different ways of organising funding

The Nordic countries have organised the research funding in slightly different ways. Norway has one single state research organisation – The Norwegian Research Council – which grants money to all research areas – be it basic or applied research. The Academy of Finland works in a similar way, by providing funding through four research councils. 

Sweden has four independent state research funds: Forte, Formas, The Swedish Research Council and Vinnova, while state research funding in Iceland is handled by the Science and Technology Council (Vísinda- og tækniráð) and the Icelandic Centre for Research Rannís.

“We cooperate with all of these, in addition to the Independent Research Fund Denmark. The other main Danish fund, the Innovation Fund Denmark, is very focused on finding technological solutions and therefore not so relevant for labour market research for instance,” says Arne Flåøyen. 

Fewer participants from Denmark

It is, however, a problem that the Independent Research Fund Denmark funds research bottom up (allowing researchers themselves to propose projects) and not thematically. That is also one of the reasons Denmark is not part of the new labour market programme.

This is also reflected in the statistics for how many researchers in the different countries have received NordForsk funding. Norway and Sweden are nearly always part of the various research programs. They have the highest number of participating researchers for the period 2010 – 2018: 

  • Norway: 671
  • Sweden: 650
  • Finland: 505
  • Denmark: 415
  • Iceland: 192

Denmark’s population is 16 times bigger than Iceland’s, but there are only twice as many participating researchers from Denmark compared to Iceland.

“Being a small country, Iceland is well aware of the benefits of being part of international cooperation, because they do not have that many researchers. The smaller countries enjoy extra benefits from the Nordic research cooperation, building networks, improving skills and getting access to relevant research,” says Arne Flåøyen.

“But all the countries get more back than they put in,” he points out, since the Nordic funding comes on top of the national money.

With a 130 million Norwegian kroner budget, this means that NordForsk releases research worth around 300 million kroner (€30m) annually.

Open or closed pot

In some cases, researchers from other countries also participate since there is an “open pot” allowing researchers themselves to decide who they want to invite. Danish researchers participated in the programme for societal security, for instance. 

The new programme for the future of work has what is called a “virtual pot”, however. 

“This means that all the money will go to the countries that have put money in the pot,” says Siri Bjarnar.

Since Lithuania is participating, there will likely be researchers who are keen to see what happens with labour migration after the Corona pandemic.

“The Nordic countries have been used to dealing with a large degree of flexibility where it has been easy to import foreign labour. Both Norway and Iceland have large diasporas of Lithuanian workers. But will they want to work here after the pandemic?” wonders Arne Flåøyen.

He thinks it is difficult to predict how many research proposals will come in.

“We announced a round of open research where we invited researchers to present preproposals, which are slightly simplified applications. These are light on detail, and more focused on selling the idea and concept. We got 334 proposals. We asked for proper applications for 55 of them and 12 got funding in the end.

“That was an extreme example. I also remember we announced a programme on childhood cancer, which got four applications. There was enough money for all four, but only three succeeded because number four was found not to be scientifically rigid enough.” 

The research groups that secure funding usually work on their projects for three or four years. NordForsk aims to announce who has secured funding towards the end of this year.


March 21 NordForsk published its call for proposals for research projects in the Future Working Life Research Programme. Read the whole text here:


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