Exploring societal targeting in public research funding: Insights from Denmark and Norway

Public research funding has increasingly shifted towards targeting societal goals. Our new approach explores to what degree funding may be societally targeted, based on four key dimensions. We examine two illustrative examples, Innovation Fund Denmark’s Grand Solutions and The Research Council of Norway’s BIONÆR.

Irene Ramos-Vielba and Duncan A. Thomas, The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Department of Political Science, Aarhus University

Funding emphasis on societal goals

Funding policy has been recognised as a major factor in the governance of public research systems since funding can have a central role in defining the scope, content and direction of public research. 

Policymakers, stakeholders and the public are increasingly interested in understanding and assessing societal benefits apparently obtained from research funding. Research may be expected to tackle grand societal challenges or specific public needs, and there are explicit policy ambitions to promote not only economic, but also social, cultural and environmental returns from publicly funded research. 

This can also be found in the Nordic context, for example, in the Danish 2020 green transition research strategy and missions, and in Norway’s recent focus on societal missions that engage the whole research value chain. 

Surprisingly, we have limited knowledge about how funding is actually designed to stimulate societal research goals. In this article, we present emerging findings from the PROSECON project[1], which aims to explore how and to which extent research funding aimed at increasing societal contributions may shape public research.

In the following sections we first present our exploratory approach to characterise four dimensions of what we refer to as societal targeting in research funding. We then illustrate these, which can be seen both in Innovation Fund Denmark’s Grand Solutions and The Research Council of Norway’s BIONÆR funding. We conclude by discussing some implications of our approach.

Four key societal targeting dimensions

Increased attention towards societal goals of research by policymakers and funders can be seen in funding programmes with broad societal aims and objectives, such as “strategic” or “mission-oriented” funding. 

Such labels, however, may not help us understand precisely which funding conditions can be expected to enhance the societal relevance of research. In fact, societal targeting of funding may be expressed as more subtle, but still identifiable and tangible, objective funding features. These can be seen in funding specifications that have some potential to shape research, i.e., conditions that funders expect researchers to satisfy in order to obtain funding.

In the PROSECON project, we consider certain specifications may be key societal targeting dimensions of funding. We determined these by observing policy discourse trends, by investigating funder practices across Denmark and Norway specifically, and by reviewing existing literature. To apply our approach in a standardised way, we only consider the dimensions are present when they are explicitly stated in relevant funding documentation (e.g., descriptions, calls, applicant and reviewer guidelines). 

  1. Interdisciplinarity 

Funding specifications may require theories or methods to be integrated from across different disciplines in the research to be funded. The underlying logic is that research issues may not be satisfactorily tackled by just one discipline in isolation. Instead, combining specialised cognitive perspectives or epistemic complementarity is expected in the funded research.

2. Transdisciplinarity

Similarly, funding may include specifications requiring participation of non-academic stakeholders. The rationale is that increasing complexity of real-world problems requires incorporating epistemologies and methodologies into knowledge production processes, which goes beyond academic disciplinary research. This can then integrate cultural values, tacit expertise and know-how from various practitioner types, facilitating socially robust knowledge.

3. Prioritized research problems

Specifying particular research problems for the funded research to address may affect the research content, ultimate goals, approach, methods and experimental scope. The assumption when naming specific problems in funding requirements is that the resulting problem-solving research is societally desirable, and may lead to applicable results, suited to identified societal needs. 

4. User-oriented outputs

Funding specifications may require the funded research outputs to be user-oriented. The idea is for outputs to contribute valuable knowledge to society by broadening the usual dissemination channels or adapting output forms to different end-users (e.g., local communities, large businesses, national policymakers, broader audiences). This expects research to produce more actionable outputs, capable of being widely transferred to diverse research beneficiaries, who may appropriate them into practice.

Two illustrative examples

Two examples from public national research funders help illustrate our approach. 

First, Grand Solutions is a mission-oriented policy from Innovation Fund Denmark to “create new, concrete solutions to important societal challenges, and […] value for Denmark”[2].

Second, the unified Research Council of Norway’s thematic BIONÆR is aimed at “strengthening and developing knowledge and skills for bio-based industries” by funding research to be undertaken in “an extensive co-operation ecosystem across institutions, sectors and countries”[3]

The table below summarizes the four key societal targeting dimensions in Grand Solutions and BIONÆR funding specifications, drawn from public website wordings, work programmes, applicant guidelines and proposal assessment criteria. 

We first check for the presence of the dimensions, as in some funding they may not be required. We then observe the degree of each dimension, i.e., whether it is only encouraged to be included in the funded research or is compulsory. 

Table: Specifications and degrees of the societal targeting dimensions

Analytically, the particular expression of these four dimensions suggests a specific potential to shape research. A researcher funded by Grand Solutions is “encouraged” to address all four key societal targeting dimensions in their research whereas for BIONÆR two dimensions are “compulsory”. This added degree may then be a stronger shaping influence. 

How researcher practices and networks are shaped can be further explored by considering these four dimensions. This involves looking at how funding is actually used ‒ in the specific research field, and other contextual factors. 

Overall, this approach moves us from a general view of societal funding to a systematic focus on four key targeting dimensions. These can accommodate various degrees of nuance, and the approach sees them as collectively capable of shaping funded research. This more systematic and comparable understanding of the societal targeting of research funding is a proxy for the shaping potential of funding.

Approaching funding in this way may then offer valuable insights for policymakers, research funders, research evaluators and scholars. It could lead to advances in design, provision and monitoring of funding. It could also contribute to a better baseline for research evaluations, because it takes into account a dimensions-based framing of researchers’ funding contexts. 

[1] The project ‘Promoting the socio-economic impact of research – the role of funding practices’ (PROSECON) is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation.


[3] Antón 2020 OECD report JT03470037, p. 139