Research funding for whom?

In Finland, the last few weeks have a special meaning to researchers working in the social sciences and humanities as the most important funding agency, the Academy of Finland, announced its funding decisions. The Academy granted funding for 59 research projects and 21 posts as Academy Research Fellow. In the former, the success rate was 13%, the share of women of the funded researchers was 51% and of the applicants 48%. In the latter, the success rate was 11% and the share of women of both the applicants and the funded researchers was 62%.

The percentages tell the familiar story. In terms of gender, the story is positive, and the Academy keeps its reputation: no apparent gender bias is observable. When it comes to the success rate, the story is gloomy as described in the Academy’s web pages by Sami Pihlström, the chair of the research council for social sciences and humanities, “With scarce resources, the competition for research funding is fierce, and many excellent projects are sadly left without funding.”

Not surprisingly, funding decisions create heated discussions and strong emotions among academics. There are few who are happy, lucky, and successful, and the vast majority who are disappointed, frustrated, and angry. Since applying for the Academy funding is more or less an obligation in universities, and there is no vision for increasing resources, this yearly emotional turmoil cannot be easily avoided. According to what I have heard, someone has even suggested that the days when the Academy announces its funding decisions should be named as the annual days of structural envy.

What is more, discussions on research funding expand beyond academia. My colleague Pia Olsson, having investigated these discussions on Twitter, refers in a blog text to Finnish journalist Ivan Puopolo´s tweet: “Which one would you fund: cancer research or researcher’s self-reflection on the emotions while playing the cello?” The message is clear: public funding should be targeted at research which has obvious, preferably measurable, benefit for taxpayers. This emphasis has strengthened also in political discourse, demanding increasing societal and economic impact from science.

We who are working in the social sciences and humanities face these demands and doubts about the relevance of our work. In this context, we need to legitimate our research and justify why we should be paid from public money. Importantly, it is these fields under a growing pressure in which women researchers and students tend to be the most represented.

Oili-Helena Ylijoki

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