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Research excellence in Portugal and its funding

Isabel Reis, Maria Joao Corte-Real, Luisa Henriques Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation

This chapter discusses Portugal’s centres of excellence (CoEs) and associated laboratories (ALs), which are supported by a multi-year funding programme of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). A considerable share of public research in Portugal takes place in research centres supported by the FCT. The centres are closely linked with higher education institutions and they perform a variety of functions, combining research with training, education and technology transfer, among others. The programme has strengthened research institutions and enhanced research quality by building research capacity.


Portugal’s centres of excellence (CoEs) and associated laboratories (ALs) are supported by a multi-year funding programme of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). This programme has strengthened research institutions and enhanced research quality by building on the research capacity of the CoEs/ALs. It accommodates a diversity of research bodies in terms of size, legal status, and number of autonomous units (Hicks, 2012; Conceiqao and Heitor, 2005). In 2010, around 30% of Portugal’s total researchers (full-time equivalent, FTE) (DGEEC, 2012) were in research centres funded by the programme, 14% of whom are associated with CoEs or ALs. The programme accounted for 30% of the FCT’s total funding over the previous decade.

The multi-year funding programme has evaluated Portuguese public and semi-public research centres every three to five years since 1994. The first evaluation was based on a national peer review (awarding ratings of 1 to 3). The second, in 1996, was an international peer review and awarded the “excellent” label for the first time (Conceiqao et al., 2003, p. 591).1 Funding of research institutions is mainly determined by the evaluation rating and by the number of doctorate holders working at the institution. The 1996 programme was a milestone in the adoption of international best practices (Santos Pereira, 2004) and the basis for the identification of CoEs, which are those rated as excellent in the international peer reviews.

All of the centres labelled “excellent” by the multi-year funding programme may apply for AL status. ALs may be made up of one or more centres. The FCT awards this status for up to ten years, following government approval, in order to promote excellence in certain scientific fields and build critical mass. The funding targets the growth of qualified human resources in ALs. The ALs also advise on the formulation of public policies and help to achieve national science and technology policy goals As the AL status is linked to national policy making, each application is considered on its merits in a top-down approach. There are currently 26 ALs. The first generation of 15 ALs was established between 2000 and 2002; two other rounds in 2004 and 2006 established several more. In 2008, the ALs were evaluated (international peer review); all but one had their status renewed for a further ten years.

The multi-year funding programme is a key instrument for promoting research excellence in Portugal (Conceiqao et al., 2003). It is complemented by other instruments that aim at promoting high-quality research. For example, the Science Programme (2007, 2008) recruited national and foreign talent and awarded more than 1 200 five-year contracts to doctorate holders. In 2012, a new programme, with the same rationale, the FCT Investigator, replaced the Science Programme.

The management of the funding programme includes regular monitoring and evaluation of the activity of the centres and ALs. This plays a key role in the decision on whether to continue to fund the centres. The assessment is based on the CoEs’ reports and strategic plans and on site visits, which include meetings with staff.2 Bibliometric indicators are also taken into consideration. After each assessment, the research centres are awarded a qualitative grade, from poor to excellent.3

The following description of Portuguese CoEs highlights those with AL status. It is based on FCT data, on the OECD RIHR survey, and on interviews of 12 directors of CoEs.

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