Call for proposals for research projects - interdisciplinary research on sustainability

Call for proposals for internal research projects for a better systems understanding related to transformative changes for sustainability

Norsk - Utlysning av forskningsprosjekt - Tverrfaglig bærekraftforskning

Deadline for applications:16 August 2021

Who is eligible to apply? Permanent academic staff at NTNU

NTNU wants to contribute to evidence-based sustainable development

The 2030 Agenda with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was adopted by all the UN Member States in 2015. The SDGs look at the environment, economics, and social development in context. A key principle is that no one should be left out. The most vulnerable and marginalized people and groups in the world must be included in this development. The timeframe for necessary changes is short, and when measures are scaled up, it is necessary to avoid major negative side effects. At the same time, it is necessary to stimulate interaction between positive side effects. This requires that research is focused to a much greater extent than today on such systemic effects/societal changes, conflicts of interest between different SDGs, and critical success factors for transformation in society.

NTNU’s commitment is therefore built around this problem and the messages from, among others, the Green Deal strategy at the EU, the reports from the UN panels, the Stockholm Resilience Centre, and the Global Sustainable Development Report 2019 that was prepared for UNESCO.

Thematic approach of the call for proposals

NTNU has earmarked 40 PhD positions for sustainability as a strategic research area where key topics include systems understanding and conflicts of interest between different SDGs as well as critical success factors for transformation in society.

The concept of sustainability is universal. NTNU’s strategic area is structured to increase knowledge of the transformative changes that must come. We have chosen to describe some of them here, but we recognize that there may be other relevant entry points/perspectives on this issue, and we recommend that there should be scope for these in an internal strategic research area like this. Nevertheless, we choose to point out some key features that we believe are important:

  • The system effects (environmental, social and economic), system dynamics and positive/negative side effects across SDGs, due to major shifts in technology and enabling technologies (including digitalization/AI, nanotechnology and biotechnology) and to measures that are scaled up in society over time (including scenarios, life cycle impacts, and managing synergies and trade-offs).
  • Processes and strategies that can open the way for a shift from the current situation to more sustainable systems, at different levels in society. How do major technology shifts take place and how are enabling technologies developed, implemented and adopted? How can we accelerate, how can we vigorously combat, and how can we control, develop and manage in a transformative change? This is not only a question of implementing policy, but also of understanding change processes within norms, cultures, practices, organizations, technologies, markets and ways of innovating.
  • System change at the individual and actor level, especially on the basis of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. How can we contribute to this through democratic and inclusive processes that accommodate different voices and perspectives (for example, the gender perspective, justice perspective, North-South perspective, health perspective, Responsible Research and Innovation perspective)?

As mentioned above, this is not an exhaustive list, and the call for proposals is open to other important perspectives that are not covered by the themes described above.

An important goal may be to shed light on complex, often controversial and value-laden interactions between nature and society, while simultaneously developing scientific knowledge that can be applied as a basis for policy and decisions in practice. In this way, sustainability research can help in dealing with the compromises and the controversial issues involved in implementing Agenda 2030, for example, managing risk, uncertainty, ethical dimensions and correct use of the precautionary principle.

NTNU has strong academic environments with advanced expertise in sustainability in technology and natural sciences. There is probably great and so far largely untapped potential in creating closer links between expert communities in enabling technologies (digital, nano and bio) and those that focus on sustainability issues. For example, both digital and nano technologies play a key role in energy and are part of the portfolio, as in the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) projects on the use of materials in battery research and in solar cells.

It is also important for academic environments in the humanities and the social sciences to be strengthened on their own terms. It is not possible to develop knowledge about transformative changes at the societal level without better links between the expert communities across all these cultures. This is not adequately developed at NTNU today, but the potential is great, and future calls for proposals in Norway and the EU seem to require more interlinkages like this. This strategic area may therefore be an important contribution in making us more competitive in the external arena in the years ahead.

Criteria for the award of funding

It is possible to apply for interdisciplinary projects with at least 4 PhD positions. The project will be built up around 3-5 permanent academic staff members from different faculties/departments/research groups in supervisor/co-supervisor roles.

We also ask that the proposals, as far as possible, be interdisciplinary across NTNU’s faculties and provide for linkages between MEDBIO (biomedical research), NATEK (engineering and science) and HUMSAM (humanities and social sciences).

The overall project proposal must contribute to increased systems understanding and knowledge about social changes, transformative processes and how these involve individuals and actors as described in the section above on the thematic approach. Other important aspects related to the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda may, as mentioned, also be relevant.

It must be specified how the project will achieve synergy between the individual PhD theses, and how the various theses work together to support and aim to contribute to an overall objective and common research question(s). Here, emphasis will be placed on the organization of the project and the contributions of the different parts to the whole.

It is a prerequisite that the knowledge developed in these projects gives NTNU an advantage in external competitive arenas. This must be described.

Projects that receive funding must, when they are awarded, develop a binding plan for applying for externally funded projects both nationally and internationally during the period. Projects that receive funding are also obliged to participate actively in dissemination activities and in workshops across the projects in the strategic research area of sustainability. Project proposals must be submitted via the faculty in which the project leader has been appointed.

We want to work towards gender balance among project managers. The Rector therefore reserves the right to use moderate gender quotas in the final prioritization of proposals.

The call for proposals does not allow for operational cost beyond the funds that accompany the PhD positions. The need for operational cost in addition to these funds must be covered by the department/faculty involved.

External partners may be relevant, such as Sintef, municipalities, county municipalities, other public-sector organizations or business and industry.  However, partners and any co-financing from partners will not be part of the evaluation criteria in the assessment of proposals.

The application process

  • Applications must be submitted via a host faculty. This is defined by where the project manager is employed.
  • The projects must be described using a specified template, and applications that depart from this will not be processed. 

Template for preparing a project proposal: prosjektsøknad.word

The application must be written in English, must have a maximum length of 6 pages (margins: minimum 2.5 cm, font: TNR, font size: at least 11 points, and line spacing: 1.) The content of the proposal must be:

 Page 1

  • Project title, project leader, principal investigators
  • Summary
  • Primary and secondary objectives

 Page 2-6

  1. State of the art, knowledge needs and novelty
  2. Research questions, hypotheses and methodology 
  3. Impact on sustainability, sustainability transitions and systems understanding
  4. Implementation – organization, work packages, activities and timeline with milestones
  5. Interdisciplinary potential – description of individual competence in the team (supervisors), activities to ensure interdisciplinary research, how the project relates to other research, and collaboration with external actors/users (if applicable)
  6. Budgets incl. supplementary funding (if applicable)
  7. References

Background material is available for the strategic research area NTNU Sustainability (web page in Norwegian), of which this call is a part. Links to documents relevant to the call for proposals can be found in the box “Om NTNUs bærekraftsatsing (About NTNU’s sustainability initiative)”. Recordings from a series of 7 webinars held earlier this year are also available as a source of information and inspiration.

Evaluation process

The initiative is funded by an earmarked grant of 30 STEM positions from the Ministry of Education and Research. In addition, we have included 10 extra positions so that non-STEM academic communities can also participate in the call for proposals. In this call, we must use the standard allocation formula. This means that the projects that are awarded funding must together contribute to the distribution of PhD positions:

  • Faculty of Engineering (IV) (11)
  • Faculty of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering (IE) (8)
  • Faculty of Natural Sciences (NV) (6)
  • Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (MH) (6)
  • Faculty of Social and Educational Sciences (SU) (3)
  • Faculty of Humanities (HF) (2)
  • Faculty of Economics and Management (ØK) (2)
  • Faculty of Architecture and Design (AD) (1)
  • NTNU University Museum (VM) (1)

This will complicate the process somewhat, because in addition to assessing the projects’ academic quality, one must also ensure that the faculties’ rightful share of positions is maintained. Positions that are not used will accrue to the owner faculty. When projects are awarded, 3 positions from the strategic research area of Sustainability will also be allocated to strengthen projects, preferably with contributions from non-STEM academic communities. How the other strategic research areas at NTNU can support projects in the areas will also be considered.

The Research Committee (FU) is the nominating body for the council of deans and will evaluate the proposals.

FU will consider the following criteria in addition to purely scientific criteria:

  • relevance to the call for proposals (how does the project address the Sustainable Development Goals and the interaction between them?)
  • whether the projects are clearly focused on the research questions related to systems understanding and transformative changes (see thematic approach, as specified earlier in this memorandum)
  • the extent to which plans are made for activities that ensure active interdisciplinary research collaboration
  • how the projects interact with other research activities and external parties/users
  • in total, the projects that are funded should address a variety of thematic entry points
  • the required allocation of positions by faculty must be achieved
  • gender balance

The list of projects that will receive funding will be published on about 20 September.  

Shortly after the announcement, the project managers must prepare text for calls for proposals for the individual PhD projects. The calls for proposals are scheduled to take place during October 2021.


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