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Linking basic research more closely to successful innovation

While Finland has been very successful in encouraging technological R&D, it has proved more difficult to incorporate the fruits of basic research into successful business innovations. A new national innovation strategy is being developed to address the issue.
Academy of Finland

The current Finnish government, which entered office in April 2007, has announced its intention of developing a national innovation strategy, including the establishment of a new ‘university of innovation’, to be created by combining the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Art and Design Helsinki. Both of these initiatives are due to be implemented and up and running by the beginning of 2009.

They represent a clear shift in emphasis in Finland’s policy on knowledge and know-how, ? a shift that has been driven by the success of the country’s science and technology policy over the last 10 years. This success has been reflected in Finland’s consistent high ranking in international comparisons in areas such as funding for science and technology, positive developments in the research community, and general knowledge-based development. Many other countries have used Finland and the Finnish approach as a benchmark for their own systems.

Understanding what needs to be done

The government has now prioritised understanding why the knowledge and infrastructure that has been developed in Finland has not been taken up and translated into concrete commercial innovations as efficiently as hoped. There could be a number of reasons for this.

One of the most obvious reasons is that there are simply not enough businesses in some important areas of science- and technology-based development, and the companies that do exist have not always been able to grow as rapidly as expected. This is particularly true in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the life sciences.

Another clear reason is that a number of traditional industries have not proved able to make use of new creative and innovative science and technology to a sufficient degree.

Advances in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the life sciences have not proved as easy to translate into business success as hoped – and Finland’s upcoming new innovation policy is designed to address issues like this.

To help correct this situation, the previous government decided to back the creation of a network of Strategic Centres of Science, Technology and Innovation. This initiative has moved ahead rapidly, as a joint effort between the Ministry of Trade and Industry, the Academy of Finland, Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, and the country’s universities, research institutes, and industry.

Five such centres are under development, covering the forest cluster, engineering machinery, well-being and health, energy and the environment, and ICT and services.

Making more of science

The new government’s shift in emphasis raises the question of the future role envisaged for basic scientific research in Finland’s innovation environment.

The Finnish business community stresses the importance of increasing direct financing for universities and the competitive funding for basic research coordinated by the Academy of Finland. This position is easy to understand, given that Finland clearly needs more resources for breakthrough research now that the basic infrastructure for scientific and technological funding is in good shape.

This type of research is critical for developing new technologies that go beyond improving existing products or enhancing the efficiency of existing processes. Studies carried out by the Academy of Finland have clearly shown how funding basic research in this way can be very effective when the fruits of the research in question can be put directly to industrial and business use.

A shift in emphasis highlighting the importance of innovation policy will also put the importance of research on the agenda in a new way.

As part of this, the Academy of Finland and Tekes are preparing a new framework for coordinating and evaluating policy in critical areas of innovation. The Academy is also working on an extensive State and Quality of Finnish Science 2009 Review that will address how issues are inter-related and what the role of basic research should be in terms of future innovation.

Finnish policy-makers have highlighted the importance of shortening the path between basic research and commercial business success.

The current state of scientific research in Finland

The Academy of Finland is preparing a broad-ranging State and Quality of Finnish Science 2009 Review. This will cover:

  • developments in the international environment and the scientific policies of a cross-section of countries
  • a comparative publication-based analysis of scientific achievement in OECD countries and how Finland ranks in various research fields
  • an assessment of Finland’s scientific strengths and weaknesses
  • a review of how the research infrastructure at Finland’s universities developed between 1990 and 2007, and how it is expected to develop between 2008 and 2015, and
  • a study of the role of scientific research and basic research in the innovation environment.

The report is due for publication in 2009.

Impact framework and indicators

The Academy of Finland and Tekes are preparing a report to:

  • provide a systematic and consistent framework for evaluating how science, technology, and innovation initiatives best work together
  • develop a common understanding of the internal drivers linking the various players in the Finnish research and innovation environment
  • provide the basis for selecting the best indicators to measure this interaction and impact, and
  • highlight the changes that are taking place in Finnish knowledge and know-how and how they affect each other.

The framework is due to be completed in August 2008, and the indicators in winter 2009.

> Paavo Löppönen
(Published in HighTech Finland 2008)