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Keeping Finnish scientific research at the international forefront

Academy of Finland
Finland’s progress over the last few decades has shown what can be achieved in transforming a country from something of a follower to a leader through long-term, concerted work in the area of science and technology policy. No one, least of all Finland according to recent studies, can afford to rest on their laurels, however.

Much of Finland’s success can be traced back to the creation of a strong national network of universities in the 1960s and 1970s, and the contribution these institutions have made to improving national capabilities. The 1980s saw the foundation of Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation, which was set up with a mandate to diversify the country’s production base and improve its economic competitiveness. Tekes has played a major role in helping Finland emerge as a major player in information and communication technology, for example. A special funding programme approved by the government in 1996 and subsequent developments saw Finland’s R&D investments, as a proportion of GDP, rise from 2.3% in 1995 to 3.4% in 2000.

Finland succeeded in consolidating its position as a leading player in the early years of the new millennium, and began to be regularly ranked among the top performers in knowledge-based development, sustainability, and international competitiveness. Finland’s investments in science and technology, the high standard of the country’s education system and its researchers, and its good track record in developing new technologies were highlighted in numerous studies.

Responding to the need for change

Recent assessments carried out by the Academy of Finland indicate, however, that the success factors that have contributed so much to Finland’s success are beginning to lose some of their edge. Research has fallen behind that in the other Nordic countries, for example. A number of important sectors of the economy – such as forest products, engineering, and ITC – have begun to fall behind internationally; and there is growing pressure to make changes in education and research organisations.

The Academy of Finland recently assessed where scientific research in Finland is today and identified a number of areas that need to be addressed to maintain and strengthen the country’s capabilities.

The Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation that have been founded since 2006 are one response to this situation, and an important one in forging closer links between the organisations responsible for channelling public funds into research, business, and universities. The centres founded so far cover information and communication technology and related services, metal products and mechanical engineering, energy and the environment, construction and national infrastructure, the forest cluster, and health and well-being.

New legislation has given universities more financial independence, while requiring them to prioritise and profile their activities more clearly and give greater emphasis to developing collaborative networks. Three universities have been merged in Helsinki – the Helsinki University of Technology, the Helsinki School of Economics, and the University of Art and Design Helsinki – as well as two in eastern Finland and two in Turku. Work is continuing on identifying further opportunities for working together more closely and merging activities.

High level of research expertise

The overall level of funding devoted to R&D in Finland levelled off during the early years of the new millennium, after many years of growth. Since then, funding has risen only slightly faster than GDP, and totalled approximately 3.5% of GDP in 2008.

Some 2.3% of the working population is employed in R&D, which is the highest figure for any OECD country, and compares to 1.3% in Norway, 2% (2007) in Iceland, and 1.3% in Germany.

Finland has given particularly emphasis to Ph.D. programmes since the mid-1990s, and has seen the annual number of new doctorates double between 1993 and 2008. Finland became the country with the highest per capita number of Ph.Ds in the EU in 2005.

Graph: Number of research person-years per 1,000 employed people in OECD countries in 2002 and 2007.

Doing more

Although a lot has been achieved, a lot still needs to be done, particularly in terms of extending Finland’s scientific research capabilities to generate both more and better research. The Academy of Finland has proposed, therefore, that a national science strategy should be developed, outlining the key targets for collaboration and partnerships over the next 10 years and the methods to be used for achieving them.

One of the areas that need to be addressed is the low level of international involvement in the Finnish research system. Only 3% of researchers working in Finland come from elsewhere at the moment, compared to an EU 27 average of 10% and more than 10% in other small countries, such as Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, and Ireland. Efforts need to be set in hand to attract foreign researchers to Finland on a number of levels, including introducing more international networking into degree programmes. The Academy of Finland and Tekes also have the potential to strengthen the Finland Distinguished Professor Programme.

In addition, greater dynamism and creativity need to be injected into the research community, which has, relatively speaking, too many Ph.D. students today, ironically, as a result of the earlier emphasis on increasing the number of doctorates. Greater mobility and cooperation between different organisations need to be encouraged as well.

Senior researchers have a lot to offer here and in enhancing the overall management of scientific research. Greater emphasis also needs to be given to leveraging the potential of the Strategic Centres for Science, Technology, and Innovation for opening up new and perhaps radical opportunities in various sectors of the economy.

Investments also need to be made in the basic research infrastructure of Finland’s universities, which has fallen behind in a number of areas, according to the OECD. The Academy of Finland believes that making investments here by the mid-2010s, and ensuring that they are comprehensively coordinated, will be essential.

> Paavo Löppönen
(Published in HighTech Finland 2010)