Matti Latva-aho

Matti Latva-aho: The competition to create something new is global – high-quality research is the foundation of success

9 Mar 2021

We need success in research efforts in order to overcome global and societal challenges and develop companies’ business activities. New innovations improve social wellbeing directly or indirectly through improved competitiveness. On the global stage, those who succeed are the ones who are able to meet genuine needs by creating new things in an effective and timely manner.

Research does not have separate national and international leagues. Instead, the competition to create new things, innovate and recruit the people who will be responsible for that innovation is global. Particularly in growth sectors such as ICT, intense competition has been the reality for the last thirty years. Modern challenges such as ageing only intensify competition further.

The Academy of Finland’s Finnish Flagship Programme is an excellent example of how public-sector research grants can be directed into scientifically promising growth sectors in a timely manner. The sectors and operator networks that can demonstrate the fruitfulness of their research and societal and industrial impact, or at least promise it clearly, are the ones that have found themselves within the scope of programme funding.

Timeliness of research projects is a central success factor

The University of Oulu’s 6G Flagship is an example of a timely launch of a research project. At its launch stage in 2018, it was the world’s first 6G research programme and has since been able to set the direction of 6G research globally as a result. In practice, though, the launch of the project was an almost foolhardy decision in the mobile technology field and invites a lot of discussion and many opinions. The process of defining the requirements and features of a next-generation system was started while the commercialisation of the previous generation of technology was still in its early stages.

On the other hand, in Oulu, there was prior experience of starting a new research programme at an early stage. The University of Oulu’s Centre for Wireless Communications (CWC) had successfully made the jump to researching the next generation of technology while the previous was still in development in the past, as well.

Basic prerequisites must be met to ensure productive research

For research work to be effective and productive, the basic prerequisites must be met. This means that the research project needs modern research infrastructure, talented researchers and sufficient funding. Of these three, funding is the easiest to secure, providing there is sufficient will to support the research. Putting together a team of talented researchers and sufficient infrastructure is considerably harder.

A particular challenge in fields that require significant individual expertise is the competition for capable researchers. National and international universities, as well as research institutes and industry, are all competing for the same specialists. Therefore, it is important to strengthen and systematise the Finnish researcher base in cooperation with the country’s entire network of operators.

Uncertainties in international politics and increased competition also create uncertainty for research projects

The distribution of roles between academic research and industrial engineering is vital from the perspective of a small country’s resource usage. The purpose of research is to act as a scouting party of sorts, venturing ahead to ascertain the situation and conditions in unknown territory. The better the scouting party performs, the better we can prepare for the situations we are about to find ourselves in and succeed.

Today, global competition and the current geopolitical situation have created more uncertainty for research work. That uncertainty has had some surprising effects on things such as research groups’ and individual researchers’ funding and choice of partners. The insufficiency of public funding may have driven researchers to look for partners in industry without consideration of their suitability. Choosing an unsuitable partner may close many other doors, at least in the short term.

When it comes to 6G research, in many ways, we are in a good position in Finland. The timely launch of the 6G Flagship improved Finland’s opportunities to be a trailblazer in the 6G conversation, which industries around the world are gradually becoming increasingly interested in. There will be demand for deep-probing 6G research for the next five or six years, after which research cooperation in wireless communication will once more have to shed its skin and grow into something new.

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