The Hungarian Scientific Research Fund: Funding Basic Research in Hungary
The Hungarian Scientific Research Fund (Hungarian abbreviation: OTKA) has been the major funding agency of basic science and scholarship since 1986 when the transition to competitive research funding started in Hungary. Its "founding fathers" modelled the principles of operation on the practice of German (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) and American research funds (National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health). Upon a government decree, OTKA has been operating as an independent non-profit organisation since 1991. Its legal status and rules of operation were established in an act in 1993 and reinforced in 1997 by the Hungarian parliament in order to provide independent support to scientific research activities and infrastructure, to promote scientific achievements of international standards, and to provide assistance to young researchers. As an independent institution, OTKA reports to the parliament and the government of Hungary. With regards to the funds provided within the annual budget of the Republic of Hungary, the appropriations of OTKA are administered via the budget of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The administrative and financial tasks related to its operation are performed by the OTKA Office in Budapest.
During the two decades of its operation, OTKA has supported approximately fifteen thousand research projects with an overall funding worth 218 million Euros. OTKA's annual budget for 2008, established in the national currency, is worth about 20 million Euros. It covers the annual financial support of around two thousand research projects (two to four years of duration each), with three hundred to four hundred new research projects starting every year. OTKA administers two rounds of open calls for proposals with a bottom-up approach towards research proposals, postdoctoral research proposals, and proposals for international cooperation every year (often based on bilateral agreements between OTKA and foreign research funding agencies with the view of Europe and Hungary investing in a knowledge-based society) - without thematic restrictions and with a special emphasis on the careers of talented young researchers and on the reintegration of Hungarian researchers returning from postdoctoral trainings or research projects carried out abroad (thus assisting the next generation of researchers and promoting the cooperation between Hungarian and foreign research centres). In addition, OTKA also administers calls for proposals for the establishment of scientific schools directed by internationally acknowledged scientists and for the development of libraries to provide research universities with the opportunity to purchase databases and full-text journals available on electronic media and various networks. A characteristic feature of the calls for proposals is the preference of basic research, involving theory and practice with the primary objective of recognising new scientific laws and elaborating new methods and skills. (As opposed to the funding policies of the corporate sector investing in targeted applied research and focusing on expected direct results, OTKA does not require specific application and immediate economic utilisation since the results of basic research normally occur in the long run.) Competition is very intense: in recent years, the annual figure of applications has varied between 1500 and 1800, the average support ratio being approximately twenty percent of the total number of proposals received. Their evaluation is based on a peer review system where the individual expert reviews are collected through an online electronic proposal review system and the proposals are further evaluated and ranked by a two-level system of review panels and boards.
The evaluation system, building on two decades of experience and always exploring more efficient methods, applies the principle of anonymity and observes strict rules regarding conflicts of interest. With the gradual introduction of applications and evaluations in the English language in 2004 (now effective in the Life Sciences and the Science and Engineering sections), OTKA started to develop an international network of peer review and further evaluation procedures. (Recruiting international partners to cooperate in both research and evaluation is a common interest of research funding agencies in Central and Eastern Europe and beyond.) The twofold structure of review panels and boards - divided according to disciplines into the sections of Social Sciences and Humanities, Life Sciences, and Science and Engineering - is overseen by an executive body, the OTKA Committee. Based on the peer review system, the rankings are established by the review panels, scrutinised and approved by the three multidisciplinary boards, and finally authorised by the OTKA Committee. If funding is granted, the OTKA Office enters into contract with the principal investigator and the host institution. A separate line of evaluation is used for substantial grant proposals where reviewers and members of interdisciplinary panels are appointed from both the Hungarian and the international community of scientists and scholars. The overall governing principle of OTKA is selecting for excellence amongst the fellow scientists and scholars in the discipline in question. In addition to the track records of the applicants, the major criteria of evaluation are the scientific potential, the expected outcome, as well as the personal conditions, the institutional background, and the financial feasibility of the requested support of the basic research proposal. The same principle applies to monitoring the progress of the funded projects through the annual reports outlining the interim results and the publications originating from the research activities. The majority of the supported projects have concluded successfully. Almost all the acknowledged scientists and scholars in Hungary have been or are pursuing research funded by OTKA, and are serving in the process of selecting proposals for funding.
Basic and applied research, development, and innovation rely on two cooperating funding agencies in Hungary: OTKA and the National Office for Research and Technology. However, all research universities, institutions of higher education, and the research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences primarily depend on OTKA in terms of financing their basic research activities. Complementing its national focus, OTKA has also been an active member of the European Science Foundation since 1996 and the European Heads of Research Councils from 2003, participating in and contributing to their multilateral programmes such as the European Collaborative Research and the European Research Area.
Hungary has traditionally been very active in various branches of basic and applied research, and several scientists of Hungarian origin and education have been successful in Europe and the United States during the past decades. Similarly, scientists in Hungary have maintained links of intensive international cooperation all over the world. Indeed, a recent survey has shown that almost one quarter of all projects funded by OTKA involve international components in their research, resulting in joint publications. For several years, applications by Hungarian scientists to the Sixth Framework Programme of the European Union have been successful in many cases; joint applications in the European Collaborative Research programmes of the European Science Foundation and in the European Research Area of the European Union have also been highly successful whenever OTKA participated in the joint funding of the respective programmes. Two eminent young investigators in the neurosciences were awarded the European Young Investigator Awards, each around one million Euros for five years. Recently, homegrown young scientists were awarded the Starting Grants of the European Research Council.
The excellence of the Hungarian research elite has always been recognised internationally, but such a reputation can only be maintained with high-standard and targeted capital investments and strong support of internationally acknowledged researchers and research groups, for instance, by increasing research and development expenditures. The conditions, institutions, and instruments of research and development in Hungary are not satisfactory in comparison to most member states of the European Union, therefore a great number of Hungarian scientists and scholars engage in research abroad. Consequently, it is also OTKA's mission to increase the number of researchers, to involve young scientists in research and development, to make teaching and research careers more attractive by providing better infrastructure and higher remuneration, to facilitate the transfer of research results and the interaction between research institutions and the corporate sector, as well as to influence decision-makers and public opinion in favour of supporting research in Hungary.
For the professionals at OTKA, the hundreds of scientists and scholars working in the review panels, as well as the thousands of experts contributing with peer reviews, the service to the Hungarian research elite through evaluation, selection, and funding is both a privilege and a challenge.continues here>>