As a funder, the FNR’s main job is to make sure the best science gets funded. How these decisions are made is critical. Finding the most accurate way of assessing the contribution a researcher or their project can make to science and society is at the heart of this. Equally important is fostering a nourishing, supportive research culture. The FNR has rapidly implemented a number of changes to improve in these areas. An overview.
In 2021, the FNR announced and implemented a range of changes to its funding policies that all have one common thread: Improving research culture and assessment – with the goal of better science. The FNR is now helping lead the way in many areas of implementing new measures to improve on these areas.
The FNR has been involved in a number of international working groups for many years, but the ball of change really started rolling in 2018, when FNR became one of the signatories of the DORA declaration, and signed up to Plan S, following the introduction of the FNR’s Open Access Policy in 2017. With this, the FNR committed both to refrain from using journal-based metrics to measure the quality of individual research, and to make publications coming out of FNR-funded available to read free of charge.
Soon after, the FNR also joined the DORA Steering Committee and the DORA funders group. But where to start making changes to a funders’ way of assessing research?
“The FNR has always implemented a qualitative assessment of research proposals, where a variety of research outputs are valued. When it came to fully implementing the DORA principles, we looked for things that would be tangible to quickly change in our evaluation process: In December 2018, we announced that peer reviewers of FNR proposals should no longer use Journal Impact Factors as an evaluation criterion,” explains Sean Sapcariu, FNR Programme Manager who works on several research culture initiatives.
‘Narrative style-CV’ – broader recognition of contributions to science and society
Next on the list was easing the burden of CVs, both on reviewers and applicants. The FNR is now one of only two research funders in the world to have implemented a ‘Narrative-style CV’ in all its funding programmes where a CV is required.
“This was originally tied to a conference from the Royal Society on research culture – they came up with the original narrative-style research CV in the early 2000s, the ‘resumé for researchers’. There are other similar versions at other funders, but a lot of them still include publication lists and metrics, which we did not want. We wanted to bring in a style of CV that allows for broader recognition of achievements for researchers, also one that would ease the burden of reviewers, who have in the past pointed out that the sheer volume of CVs in a proposal often take up more pages than the proposal itself.”
The Narrative CV implemented at FNR is based on a landscape analysis of the different funders currently using a narrative CV, as well as the Royal Society’s ‘Resumé for Researchers’. The goal of the CV is to allow an applicant to be more fairly evaluated on their scientific vision, relevant experience, and a broader set of contributions to science and society – including those related to research conduct, Open Science, mentoring and others – instead of solely metrics, journal names, and other information that does not fully represent the potential of a researcher.
“A good scientist, again, should focus on doing good research, and the impact will come. Typical CVs and typical researchers aim for quantity over quality, number of publications and citations, how many PhD students, how many grants, how much grant money. This CV moves away from that. A researcher may have had less grants, but mentored a lot of good PhD students and postdocs, and/or be a great group leader – this counts for something and this CV should help level the playing field a little bit.”
Along with the requirement of an ORCiD for all applicants, the Narrative CV was implemented in FNR funding programmes in 2021, and immediately followed by a survey to collect feedback from applicants, panel members and reviewers – feedback which has been largely positive, although with a small subset of researchers not comfortable with the change.
Applicants that are perhaps ‘used to’ getting grants based on a long list of publications, who now have to instead write about what difference and contributions the science has made, are maybe not so happy, as they may feel this could have a negative impact on the number of grants they are awarded. Rather than using the same CV all the time, only updating it to add a new publication, this CV requires the applicants to tailor their CV to each grant application – just as is done in other sectors, where you would not send the exact same CV for an engineering job as you would for one in e.g. customer service, as each demands a different set of skills or experience. More work, but also an opportunity for applicants to frame their research in a new, tailored way.
“Our main job as a funder is to make sure the best science gets funded, and how these decisions are made is critical. Finding the most accurate way of assessing the contribution a researcher or their project can make to science and society is at the heart of this,” Sean Sapcariu explains.
A more holistic approach to research assessment
The hope is that a research assessment process that does not take journal metrics into account will open the playing field up more and help reduce bias. Of course, the narrative cv style cannot eliminate bias on its own. Bias can still happen, for example in relation to the writing skills of the applicants, the scientific field and also in terms of how achievements are presented. It is established that women are less likely to ‘hype’ their achievements, while men are less hesitant to do so. Training and guidance are key, both in how to write and read such a CV.
“Guidance for writing a narrative CV exist, and the FNR believes that these resources should be developed for and used by all researchers. For example, the University of Glasgow has developed an open online training for researchers that have to write a narrative CV, and the FNR points applicants to this training in the narrative CV template,” Sean Sapcariu explains.
On the topic of bias, the FNR together with DORA in 2021 also produced a six-step guide for how to improve evaluators approach to research assessment. Available as an explanatory video and as a factsheet, any scientist about to evaluate a research proposal is encouraged to implement these steps in their thinking.
“We show the video before every panel and it has a good impact. It is hard to quantify it, but I have seen a shift and it is changing panel member’s mindsets in the right direction,” Sean Sapcariu explains.
Recognising outstanding scientific achievements
This shift from valuing overall contributions to science over journal metrics is also reflected in the FNR’s annual FNR Awards, where researchers are recognised for their outstanding efforts in research and science outreach. Previously, the FNR awarded prizes for ‘Outstanding Publication’ and ‘Outstanding Research-Driven Innovation’, but in 2021 these categories were absorbed into the new category ‘Outstanding Scientific Achievement’, to further help change the perception of a successful researcher from someone who must publish in prestigious scientific journals towards a diverse team that aims to change science and society for the better.
Open Science for better science – a strategic FNR priority
Developing state-of-the-art research infrastructures, research data management and open science practices are strategic FNR priorities in the 2022-25 FNR Strategy & Action Plan.
Since 2017, the FNR has had an open access requirement in place for all publications coming out of projects with FNR funding. The FNR was among the first organisations to join cOAlition S’s Plan S for open access to research results, spearheaded by Science Europe, an association of major Research Funding Organisations and Research Performing Organisations, which has had Marc Schiltz – a strong advocate of open science – as President since 2017. Any research project funded by the FNR must budget for open access to any resulting publications.
“Research infrastructures are becoming more necessary than ever before, especially in the wake of the ongoing digital transformation. Research data – now produced at impressive speed and volume – is becoming an important asset for generating new knowledge and innovations. Providing adequate data infrastructures and management approaches is a vital necessity for performant research systems. The Open Science paradigm ensures that scientific knowledge and discoveries are shared and used in a way that maximises their benefit to science and their impact for society,” explains FNR Secretary General Marc Schiltz.”
In the spirit of Open Science, any project funded by the FNR since January 2021 must have a Data Management Plan in place. Any data that underpins research papers must, for example, be made available to other researchers at time of publication, and should be deposited in a trusted repository, where the data can be found, accessed, and reused.
“A lot of our initiatives are moving in the open science direction, because open science is better, higher quality science that will lead to better results,” Sean Sapcariu explains.
This FNR policy is aligned with the Core Requirements for Data Management Plans as defined in the Science Europe practical guide to the international alignment of Research Data Management. Similar policies have or are currently being implemented by many European funders, including the European Commission. FNR’s policy therefore allows for maximum international alignment, thus facilitating cross-border collaboration.
Rewarding and supporting the people who enrich research culture
The interpersonal dimension of science is vital – after all, there is no research culture without people. Some of these people go above and beyond – for example the best mentors. Good mentorship goes beyond professional development, shaping individual scientists, impacting scientific careers, as well as passing along positive research values such as research integrity, scientific credibility and fostering a diverse and inclusive research environment.
It is important for these vital contributions to research culture to be recognised. Therefore, in 2021, the FNR introduced a new category – ‘Outstanding Mentor’ – to its annual FNR Awards, which aims to do just that. The new category has been welcomed to highly positive feedback by the research community in Luxembourg, and beyond.
“When I think about recognition in academia, most of the time it’s about the output, it’s about publications, about research projects. But it is rarely about the interpersonal dimension of science, which I find to be important. Academic work is about people and if you don’t care about people, you cannot care about the science they do.” – Andreas Fickers, one of two winners of an Outstanding Mentor FNR Award in 2021.
Supporting diversity and gender balance in science
Speaking of people being vital to science – it is undeniable that action is needed to make science fairer and more inclusive. Luxembourg is below the European average when it comes to women versus men in science, and this number decreases the higher we look up the career ladder. Change takes time, but actions are in the making.
As a member of Science Europe, the FNR is committed to a detailed monitoring of gender statistics across its funding schemes. The FNR is doing well in terms of maternity and parental leave, since researchers funded in the framework of the FNR’s various schemes all have employment contracts entitling them to the relatively generous Luxembourg maternity and parental leaves.
To fight the gender imbalance in research in Luxembourg, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research (MESR) has mandated the FNR to establish a concrete action plan.
In 2020, the Luxembourg Gender Working Group (GWG) was set up, bringing together representatives from all four Luxembourg public research institutions as well as the FNR. The four areas of focus: ‘Gender data monitoring’, ‘Gender diversity survey’, as well as ‘Best practices for the recruitment processes’.
Next steps: Sights on reducing reporting burden
Let us circle back to the phrase ‘reducing burden’. The goal is to reduce the burden where possible and feasible. Beneficiaries of FNR funding are subject to relatively intense reporting. There are plans – with a pilot already running – to create a lighter, more reflective process. The rough idea is less time spent doing less useful parts of reporting, creating more time to do research.
“One of the goals here is to develop better links between the funder and researchers. It is also to understand how the research landscape is evolving through individual projects. It is our mission to make the research done in Luxembourg as successful and high quality as possible, and we want to do this through support and building trust.”
A new method of reporting is being piloted with a selection of projects in 2022 where feedback will be gathered that will inform how FNR will adapt reporting going forward.
Contributing to the global conversation on open science and research culture
“It’s important to note that assessment is both national and international. Researchers are based all around the world and it is key to align everyone and work cross-border on this, for the benefit of the researchers, the evaluators, the science and society,” Sean Sapcariu explains.
Of course, the FNR is not going any of this alone. Being part of the conversation as an active participant is essential in this long-term endeavour. The FNR is actively involved in a wealth of funders, working and steering groups and committees on all of these topics and more.
In the National Research and Innovation Strategy for Luxembourg, the ministry has stated:
“The government’s aim is to position Luxembourg as a particularly attractive research location for the next generation of bright talents, women and men.”
To that end, a national Research Culture Working Group was set up in 2021, with representatives from all four Luxembourg public research institutions and the FNR. The goal of this group is to understand the current research culture in Luxembourg, foster sharing of best practices and alignment of international initiatives, and to develop a goal-oriented action plan towards improving research culture.
In 2021, Luxembourg also hosted the Science Europe High Level Workshop, on the topic of research culture, which brought together 150 people, including heads of national research organizations, senior representatives of national ministries and EU institutions, and researchers of all career stages, in order to foster a discussion around the future of research culture in the European Research Area.