Nordic experience with centres of excellence

21.05.2013
“Nordforsk can learn a lot from the experience of the various Nordic countries with their national centres of excellence,” states Gunnel Gustafsson, Director of Nordforsk.

“The Nordic Centre of Excellence (NCoE) scheme is the flagship of NordForsk’s research funding programmes,” says Ms Gustafsson.
“Therefore it is very interesting to hear how excellent research is organized in the different Nordic countries” she says.

Sharing Nordic experiences

Foss Hansen, Gustafsson, Experiences from the national centres of excellence in the Nordic countries were shared and discussed at a recent conference hosted by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU). NIFU was commissioned by the Research Council of Norway to study the effects of the various national centres in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

A successful concept

The general consensus among conference participants was that allocation in the form of generous, long-term financing is a sound way to distribute research funds. “This concept provides working conditions that correspond with what most researchers are seeking,” states Liv Langfeldt, Deputy Head of Research at NIFU. She has been part of a research project studying the effects of the centres of excellence in Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. The project is being carried out under the Knowledge Base for Research and Innovation Policy Initiative (FORFI) at the Research Council, aimed at further developing the knowledge base for designation of research and innovation policy.

Research Council positive

Director General Arvid Hallén of the Research Council of Norway believes the centres of excellence concept has had a positive impact on research groups in Norway. “It has spawned collaboration across a variety of disciplines and institutions. The status as a centre of excellence leads to additional funding and the recruitment of top-notch researchers,“ he says. “In addition, the initiative has shed light on the importance of how research and research-management are organised,” adds Mr Hallén.

Diversified objectives

While the reasons for establishing national centres of excellence may differ for each of the Nordic countries, they all share the objective of ensuring high-quality research activity. Other reasons for establishing the centres include:

  • to enhance international competitiveness;
  • to foster innovative and effective research;
  • to obtain research of a high international standard;
  • to help focus resources;
  • to increase the efficiency of research administration.

Room for improvement

The research report also points out there is a risk that the concentration of resources in the centres leaves too few resources for other research groups. The question of whether the centres are too elitist at the expense of broad-based research has also been widely discussed. A number of conference participants agreed that there is room for improvement in the centre schemes both in terms of ensuring better gender balance among centre directors and in terms of re-establishing links between excellence in research and educational programmes.

Thirty years of experience NIFU konf minglebilde

The idea behind the centres of excellence emerged in the Nordic countries during the 1990s. Denmark launched its first centre as far back as in 1993. Thomas Sinkjær, Director of the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF), stated that the centres of excellence in Denmark have been followed up very closely.  The DNRF visits each centre every year. “Dialogue with the centre is the focal point of these meetings,” Mr Sinkjær explains. “It’s a matter of being willing to ask tough questions so that both parties can learn from what works and what doesn’t.”

Nordic similarities and differences

Many of the conference participants agreed that the Nordic countries have much to learn from each other’s experiences. Gunnel Gustafsson adds, “Nordforsk is well aware of the differences between the Nordic countries also with regard to their respective national centres of excellence. In my opinion, adapting the centres of excellence to the particular needs and framework of each country is absolutely the right approach.”

Unique in the world

“There are some clear differences from one Nordic country to the next, but we should not overlook how similar we are,” says Pär Omling from Lund University.  “The Nordic region is unique in this way,” he states.
Gunnel Gustafsson agreed, and concluded by confirming: “Our task is to do an even better job at marketing the Nordic model internationally.”


The first Nordic Centres of Excellences were launched in 2003. Since that time, it has become a well-entrenched concept and 22 centres have been established thus far.  Final evaluations of five of these centres will be conducted over the course of this year.

Read more on Nordic Centres of Excellence



Header image: In the discussion panel among others (f.r.) Gunnel Gustafsson, Director of Nordforsk, Arvid Hallén,  President of the Norwegian Research Council and Marja Makarow, vice-president of the Academy of Finland and Pär Omling from Lund University. Omling is also President of The European Science Foundation.
Image 2: Director of Nordforsk, Gunnel Gustafsson discusses with Hanne Foss Hansen from the University of Copenhagen and Lisbeth Söderqvist from The Swedish Research Council
Image 3: Approximately 60 participants from nordic universities, research councils and other were attending the NIFU conference on Centres of Excellence.

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