Funding strategic research for the benefit of society

Funding strategic research for the benefit of society

30 Nov 2016

Finland has assumed the role of a pioneer in providing funding for strategic research. In a country such as Finland, which rests on structures with low hierarchical levels, researchers have relatively easy access to policy-makers, business executives and public servants. Not only does this facilitate interaction between researchers, policy-makers and public officials, it also contributes to focusing and targeting research to serve the good of society.

The Finnish funding instrument for strategic research is still a fairly exceptional funding scheme globally. Finland’s first strategic research programmes have been running for just over a year. The scheme is built around a model where the Strategic Research Council (SRC), appointed by the Finnish Government and situated in connection with the Academy of Finland, annually prepares proposals on research themes to be approved by the Government.

SRC chair Per Mickwitz underscores the importance of the process where the Finnish Government annually deliberates on where research is needed to produce new knowledge and solutions to topical challenges. The SRC actively consults the scientific community before drafting its theme proposals. There is no political direction after the Government has decided the final themes. The SRC then makes the themes operational, by defining corresponding strategic research programmes that offer funding to research consortia built around the topics of the programmes. The SRC’s annual funding budget is 55 million euros.

 “It’s also important that the research topics are sufficiently broad; we don’t want to make the programmatic questions too narrow. Too narrow questions would repress the researchers’ knowledge and creativity. The researchers know very well what has been studied around the world and what is worth studying in Finland within the themes provided,” explains Mickwitz, justifying the scope of the programmes. In fact, the multidisciplinarity of the funded projects is a legal requirement, stipulated in the Act on the Academy of Finland. As a promising example of novel multidisciplinarity, Mickwitz mentions a case where robotics researchers joined forces with philosophers and sociologists.

Interaction is a new approach

The Finnish strategic research model highlights the importance of interaction. Already at the application stage, the consortia are required to outline plans for their interaction activities, that is, how they intend to engage with end-users and beneficiaries of the research results. The consortia have, for example, hired professionals in the interaction field, such as a professor of information studies, a professor of knowledge management and the former head of communications of the Finnish National Opera. Some consortia have communications agencies as members, and all have tapped into fresh forms of communication such as social media and blogs.

An example of collaboration at the highest level is that the programme directors for the strategic research programmes were given an opportunity to join SRC chair Mickwitz in discussions with the Government at the Prime Minister’s residence. Researchers working in the consortia have also gained access to converse with the Parliament’s Education and Culture Committee and the Committee for the Future.

The fact that interaction is a stated requirement has also raised further questions. Some of the funded projects have reported that it will take a few years for their results to materialise. These projects have solved the problem by, for example, engaging with stakeholders from the very start of the projects in order to deliberate on research needs.

 “The tensions arising in these situations are largely based on a one-sided notion where the researcher’s role is to bring forth a result that solves a problem elsewhere. What we’re aiming for is a truer dialogic process that can precisely identify where new knowledge is needed. We’re envisioning a situation where policy-makers have determined a challenge that requires a solution. Our process helps to create a shared understanding of a possible solution to that challenge based on scientific evidence,” explains Jussi Vauhkonen, who heads the Strategic Research Unit at the Academy of Finland and is in charge of planning and managing the strategic research funding instrument. According to SRC chair Per Mickwitz, the themes decided by the Government and the strategic research programmes are often so multidimensional that having a large group of people to discuss them is the best way to acquire a sufficiently diverse knowledge base and scientific perspective.

It is important to remember that strategic research does not cast aside traditional scientific methods. The projects are still required to produce high-quality scientific publications. ”No new science would be a disaster! It’s vital to receive feedback from peers as well,” says Mickwitz.

International collaboration is key

International collaboration is an integral part of the strategic research funded under the SRC’s scheme. Mickwitz says that there is at least as much international activity in the strategic research projects as in other projects funded by the Academy of Finland. Strategic research funding can also be granted to international partners. What matters is that the knowledge they produce will support Finnish policy-making. There have been groups all the way from the US, for instance.

 “It seems that there’s a degree of self-determination in the way the Finnish scientific community homes in on international discussion partners. Even those consortia that don’t include foreign subprojects seem to include some foreign partner,” Jussi Vauhkonen says. The presence of international partners is evident, for example, from the projects’ mobility plans or from the international advisory boards that some projects have set up. Some of the consortia also benefit from the involvement of top-level organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA). International engagement is also an important element of the interaction plans of the consortia.

In practice, however, the funded teams must be led from Finland. The interaction required by the funded activities demands a strong presence in Finland.

Learn more about the funding for strategic research.


Original Finnish text by Leena Vähäkylä
Photo by Marjo Aaltomaa

Last modified 30 Nov 2016
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