"Not a one-man job"

The Research Council of Norway wants more women at the helm of the Centres of Excellence. But the centres themselves are afraid of losing the competition for funding if they choose a female director.

“No Centres of Excellence are managed by one person alone. This is why I also believe that the SFF evaluation should focus not only on the centre director, but on the entire management team,” says Brit Salbu, Director of the Centre for Environmental Radioactivity at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, which was awarded SFF status in 2013. (Photo: NMBU)

Siri Eldevik Håberg is one of two directors of the new Centre for Fertility and Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. (Photo: Norwegian Institute of Public Health)

The Research Council of Norway wants more women at the helm of the Centres of Excellence. But the centres themselves are afraid of losing the competition for funding if they choose a female director.

For the fourth time, a few research groups have come out on top in the competition and been awarded status as a Centre of Excellence (SFF). Every five years the Research Council selects a few research groups that are awarded a generous amount of basic funding over a 10-year period so they can increase their international standing and impact.

In March of this year it was announced that 10 new research groups out of 150 applicants had been given status as a Centre of Excellence. Of these, only two centres have female directors, and in both cases the women will share the directorship with a man.

Read Fewer female centre directors

“Must have top scores across the board”

The new Centre for Fertility and Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health is one of the two centres that will have a woman as director: Siri Eldevik Håberg. She normally serves as a science director, and will lead the new centre together with Per Magnus, also a science director.

“Per Magnus and I have worked together for many years on a number of different projects. But he is older than me and will turn 70 during the centre’s project period. So we thought it would be natural for me to take over halfway through the period. I will be actively involved in managing the centre from the very beginning,” Håberg emphasizes.

“Why couldn’t you serve as the centre director for the entire period?”

“Per has more experience with research management, and has an even larger international network. This is why he was the best candidate to lead the centre in the first period. And I think that his experience was one of the reasons we were awarded SFF status.”

“So you think that if you had been put forward as the centre director for the entire period, your grant application would have been placed at a disadvantage?”

“Yes. This is a high-level competition where you can’t afford to lose points in any areas. You must have top scores across the board. So it’s important to have the best possible candidate as the project manager,” explains Håberg.

Advised against a shared directorship

Harald Stenmark, a cancer researcher at the University of Oslo, has been appointed as director of an SFF centre for the second time. This time Stenmark will lead the Centre for Cancer Cell Reprogramming. He has also directed the Centre for Cancer Biomedicine, which received SFF status in 2007.

Stenmark is the only person from the previous centre who is also a part of the new centre. But now, as then, his co-director is a female researcher.

Harald Stenmark of the University of Oslo was advised to direct the SFF centre by himself. (Photo: UiO)

“The co-director is more than a deputy,” he emphasizes.

“This time we considered whether we should propose sharing the centre directorship. We consulted with various people, and decided that we had the best chance of success if only I was put forward as the centre director, since I have the most point-giving publications.”

“Who advised you against a shared directorship?”

“It was an external consultant provided by the Faculty of Medicine who had a lot of experience with this type of application. We were advised to choose the person with the most extensive CV and the highest citation index for the centre director,” says Stenmark.

Siri Eldevik Håberg of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health thinks that many female researchers are ready to take on the responsibility of serving as a centre director.

“But the majority of male researchers will still have the most extensive experience, and this is what counts in the competition. We see this in other calls for proposals as well, that you get the highest score if you choose the most experienced person as the project manager. But then it becomes difficult for younger women to try their hand at project management, and they don’t gain the experience needed to become a centre director. Of course, scientific quality must be given the greatest weight in grant allocations, but we usually work in management teams,” she says.

“Someone must have the last word”

The Centre for Environmental Radioactivity at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences works in teams as well. This centre was established in the previous SFF funding round and is directed by Brit Salbu.

“No Centres of Excellence are managed by one person alone. This is not a one-man job. We have three women and one man on my management team. They all cover different areas where they have expertise. One is responsible for international cooperation, one is a research manager, one is a teaching coordinator, etc.”

“Then do you really need a centre director? Couldn’t you just operate with a management team?”

“We probably need both. Someone must have the last word. It’s important for us to try to reach consensus among the three main groups: the management team, the board which consists of four partners, and the various research area managers. This is why I also think that the SFF evaluation should focus not only on the centre director but on the entire management team. But some decisions must be taken quickly, when there is no time for discussion, and then the centre director must take responsibility.”

“Do you think of yourself as a role model, as a female centre director?”

“Perhaps I’m a role model mainly because I work a lot and am enthusiastic about what I do. By that I mean that I – and we – are very privileged to have a job that is also a hobby. We don’t stop thinking about our work at four o’clock. Many female researchers stop working in the field when they have children, and this is increasingly the case for Norwegian men as well. In our research group, the majority of PhD candidates are women, while the male candidates are primarily from abroad. The fact that so few young Norwegian men are choosing research here with us as their future career actually worries me more than the lack of female centre directors.

“No women under consideration”

Bertil Tungodden directs an SFF centre at the Norwegian School of Economics. (Photo: NHH)

Bertil Tungodden is the director of the newly established FAIR – Centre for Experimental Research on Fairness, Inequality and Rationality at the Norwegian School of Economics. ​

“Our management team will be comprised of six people: two women and four men. And no, there was no obvious female candidates for the director of our centre, which reflects the fact that we are a male-dominated environment. The two women on our management team were not under consideration as directors this time.”

However, the majority of the PhD candidates are women.

“We plan to work actively to ensure that they get the career development they deserve. One of our partners, Janet M. Currie, is an international expert who has worked a great deal with strengthening the position of women in academia. She will put special focus on mentoring and network-building for the female researchers at the new centre.”

“Important to have role models”

Harald Stenmark also acknowledges the value of role models at the cancer research centre he will direct.

“The majority of our PhD candidates and post-docs are women, and it would be beneficial for them to see that women can direct large research centres. In fact, it’s not a secret that many young women are uncertain whether they want to pursue a research career with everything that is required. So it could be motivating to see that other women are managing it.”

Siri Eldevik Håberg encourages the Research Council of Norway to think more long term:

“I hope that in calls for proposals other than for SFF centres, the Research Council will put more emphasis on getting more female project managers. Perhaps they should look primarily at the quality of the entire research group, and not deduct points if the project manager is not the person with the most scientific expertise. By doing this, more women could assume project management responsibility, and gain qualifications to become SFF centre directors in the future.”

“Four equal criteria”

John-Arne Røttingen, Chief Executive of the Research Council, confirms that the choice of centre director is an extremely important factor in the grant application.

The Research Council will follow up the centres’ measures to hire more women in senior-level positions, according to John-Arne Røttingen, Chief Executive of the Research Council. (Photo: Ida Irene Bergstrøm)

“Weight is given to scientific excellence, inventiveness, research management, and supervision of students. These criteria are very similar to those used by the European Research Council (ERC) when it selects its project managers. In cases when an SFF centre considers having two directors, both will be assessed according to these criteria. In this respect, Harald Stenmark and his colleagues got good advice to put forward one centre director, if there was a huge difference in the merits between the two candidates being considered for centre director.”

With that being said, the scientific quality of the research management team is given the same weight as the scientific expertise of the centre director, according to Røttingen.

“The SFF centres are selected on the basis of the research, the centre director, the research managers and the organization as a whole. All four of these criteria are given equal weight. The criterion for the research managers explicitly allows for the possibility to assess them on the basis of their potential or on expertise that is critical for the centre, if the excellence criterion does not fit. In addition, 26 percent of the research managers at the 10 new SFF centres are women.”

The Research Council agrees that the entire management team is critical for the SFF centres.

“We attach importance to the management team when assessing the grant applications. It’s critical that the research managers help to prepare the application so that they have ownership of the centre from the outset. The research managers are important for creating a good research environment with cooperation across research groups. By the same token, we believe that a responsible centre director with strong scientific credentials is important for achieving research of the highest possible quality.”

Røttingen says that the Research Council will closely follow up the centres’ measures to hire more women in senior-level positions.

“We also encourage the centres to form a dynamic team of research managers. We hope to see many female research managers at the next generation of centres.”

Translated by Connie Stultz.

Facts: Centres of Excellence (SFF)

For the fourth time, the Research Council of Norway awarded Centre of Excellence (SFF) status to several research groups this year. Two of the 10 new SFF centres are directed by female researchers in cooperation with a man. The remaining centres have male directors, and one centre has two men.

The Research Council launched the Centre of Excellence scheme in 2003. No centres in 2003 or in the next funding round in 2007 had female directors.

This was the situation until 2013, when 13 new SFF centres were selected. Three of these had female centre directors and 10 had male directors.