How gender researchers get funded

2016-06-01 11:01

Money from a few major funding sources or a mosaic of many small ones? The funding of gender research varies significantly across higher education institutions. has talked to three research environments.

While all contributions are appreciated, the largest grants are not always the ones in highest demand, explains Katarina Giritli-Nygren, director of Forum for Gender Studies at Mid Sweden University.

‘A grant from a county administrative board or a municipality might yield SEK 300 000, while EU Structural Funds may fund an SEK 13 million project,’ she says. ‘Still, we’re not so thrilled about the Structural Funds. Their detailed rules cause a great deal of administration and a lower quality of the research,’ she says.

Forum for Gender Studies consists of a core group of 16 individuals and about ten more loosely affiliated persons. The members acquire research funding from a wide range of sources – government agencies such as the Swedish Research Council, Vinnova, the Swedish Work Environment Authority, the National Agency for Special Needs Education and Schools and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency as well as local governments and the private nationwide company Länsförsäkringar.

The requirements vary greatly across the funders, says Katarina Giritli-Nygren.

‘We’re expected to contribute a lot of different things, we need to be jacks of all trades,’ she says. ‘If the county administrative board wants us to do a workshop for them, then that’s what we do. Or if we, who are not at all specialised in sustainability issues, are asked to be part of a project on sustainable urban development, then that’s what we need to do.’

It takes creativity to make everybody happy

The landscape of small and specialised funding sources is difficult to overlook and keeps changing, she concludes.

‘Old ones disappear and new ones pop up. Whoever has a new idea for research will look everywhere for a suitable funding source. You become good at fiddling with the application and using the terminology that’s on the agenda at the moment.’

For many funders, the primary aim is not research but rather regional development. It may take a lot of creativity to match different interests.

‘We need to find ways to live up to the funders’ expectations at the same time as we are able to collect useful data and maintain our integrity as researchers,’ says Katarina Giritli-Nygren.

The level of success in this respect is often unknown until after the fact.

‘It varies a lot. I’m just now finishing a project and unfortunately I am realising that the results are not going to be so great in a research perspective. But sometimes things turn out great, like when the company Länsförsäkringar gave money to a project on elderly care in rural areas and market solutions without a market. It resulted in several journal publications, at the same time as the funder was happy with our report. So it’s definitely possible to combine different interests.’

Advantages and disadvantages of targeted funding

The gender studies environment at Södertörn University consists of seven permanently employed senior researchers (of whom three are professors), four PhD students and a few temporary positions. Almost all research funding comes from three sources: the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies, the Swedish Research Council and the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences. It could not have looked much different, considering the research areas, says Professor Ulla Manns.

‘Not many other funders are relevant to us, as our research falls in the humanities and social sciences. Critical studies of whiteness, for example, do not raise a lot of interest among businesses. Nor do they attract much growth-related support.’

The funding from the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies is reserved for research at Södertörn University specifically. Although this sounds like a great deal, it must be remembered that the University gets less government funding than other Swedish higher education institutions, Ulla Manns points out. And its employment contracts never include any research duties – with the exception of a few professorships paid for by the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies.

‘It’s our biggest problem, since it means that our employment contracts do not give us any space for writing research proposals or following up on the latest research in our field by for example attending conferences,’ says Manns. ‘Partly for this reason, we’re not very eager to apply for EU funding, which could otherwise be of interest to us. It’s too great a project to put an EU application together. We just don’t have enough space to do it.’

Open calls are important

The gender studies division was rated ‘excellent’ when Södertörn University recently carried out an internal evaluation of its research environments, and the group has been good at attracting external funding.

Besides professorships and individual research projects, the Foundation for Baltic and East European Studies also funds a number of doctoral studentships. Three of the currently four PhD students in the gender studies environment belong to the Baltic and East European Graduate School (BEEGS), while one is part of a research project funded by the Foundation. The aim of the Foundation – ‘to fund research in areas related to the Baltic States and Eastern Europe’ – is evident. Ulla Manns sees both advantages and disadvantages in research funders having a clear profile.

‘In a best-case scenario, the specialisation can trigger the development of new research questions. But there is also a risk that the researchers try to adjust their work in a way that can have bad effects on the basic research. So it’s important that we keep safeguarding the big, open calls for research proposals, that we always defend the basic research.’

Co-funding – a practical problem

According to Lena Abrahamsson, professor of gender and technology at Luleå University of Technology, the balance between different funding sources can be critical to successful research. The more extensive the requirements by funders, the more important it is to also attract funding from sources that offer the researchers more freedom.

The gender studies environment at Luleå University of Technology consists of about ten researchers. The group’s external research funding is SEK 5–6 million a year, or about 60 per cent of the total budget. The funding sources are quite diverse, ranging from the R&D Fund of the Swedish Tourism & Hospitality Industry to the EU’s framework programme Horizon 2020, in which Luleå University of Technology serves the function of a small sprocket in a gigantic European machinery. Grants are also received from governmental funding sources such as Forte, Formas, Mistra and Vinnova, as well as from the Nordic Council of Ministers’ mineral research programme NordMin and the EU’s structural funds. Also the companies and organisations that the researchers collaborate with in the EU, Vinnova, NordMin and structural fund projects become co-funders – at least on paper.

‘Many funders require co-funding from the companies involved in a project,’ says Lena Abrahamsson. ‘If we get SEK 500 000, the companies are expected to make an equal contribution. This contribution is generally made in kind, so to speak, in the form of labour hours. But the hours donated usually don’t go specifically to the research activities in a project, so the support doesn’t benefit us directly. To us, the co-funding requirement is a practical problem, since it makes it more difficult to involve companies.’

Heavy administration gets in the way of research

She describes the funding from Vinnova, the EU structural funds and similar sources as ‘fun but difficult money’.

‘The research is very exciting, for example problematisation of the traditionally narrow innovation concept, but the bureaucracy around it is a heavy burden. ”This is very expensive money,” as a colleague once said.’

The extensive administration surrounding the research funding has negative effects both on the development of knowledge in general and on the individual researcher,’ says Abrahamsson.

‘It doesn’t leave much time for getting published, and that’s bad news since researchers are assessed mostly based on their publications.’

One important part of the Swedish government’s funding of the field of gender studies in the last decade has been the appointment of so-called centres of gender excellence. Lena Abrahamsson has mixed feelings about the initiative.

‘It created a resource imbalance, so of course it felt a bit unfair for those who weren’t selected for the appointment. Of course they too would have liked to hire 10 PhD students. I don’t think that feeling has gone away yet. But at the same time I understand the intention and am convinced that, overall, it was a good initiative and an enormous success for the research field.

Author Anders Nilsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
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