Paula Eerola (vasemmalla), Heikki Mannila (keskellä) ja Johanna Myllyharju (oikealla)

Finnish science must get back onto a growth track

3 Mar 2022

Scientific research has a diverse and absolutely critical role to play in building up a wellbeing society. It provides the foundation for knowledge and understanding the world, for sustainable welfare and wealth, informed decision-making, better education and the improvement of practices. High-quality and high-impact research also provides the basis for developing new skills and new expertise. Research, education and innovation all depend on the common foundation of skilled, competent people.

In its recent report the Parliamentary RDI Working Group observed that Finnish competitiveness and welfare are based on competence, research and innovation. It also laid down the key principles on which to base the common objective of increasing the funding available for research.

The working group is clear in outlining that competitiveness is an important principle and quality factor for research funding. A significant portion of competitive funding in Finland is channelled via the Academy of Finland and Business Finland, which serves to ensure high quality standards and also facilitates the coordination of different funding instruments.

The working group furthermore stresses the key importance of international exchange to the RDI system. Indeed, the Academy of Finland is committed to supporting international research cooperation and to attracting leading scientists from all over the world to work in high-level research environments in Finland.

One of the Academy’s key roles is to promote research excellence at the highest international level. This also lays the foundations for the ability of Finnish society to tackle and solve the grand challenges of our time. As we have most recently seen in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic, the ability to overcome even major unexpected challenges depends on a record of long-term high-quality research.

High-quality research works through multiple channels of impact in society. The longest-lasting impact comes through competent people putting the lessons they have learned to practical use in ever new situations. Another important channel is via researchers’ domestic and international collaborations, both with other researchers and with end-users of their work. This channel, too, requires a long-term and systematic approach as well as financial support. The third avenue of impact is through the diffusion and dissemination of research results, materials and methods from the academic community to basic education, product development and many other fields.

The Academy’s core role is to sift out the very best from the several thousands of research plans and funding applications submitted each year. It does this by means of international peer reviews, which are conducted by almost one thousand foreign experts. In recent years the competition has been intense: on average no more than some 15 per cent of all applications have been granted funding.

An international evaluation published on 1 March 2022 found that the Academy of Finland has performed excellently in its core role. Furthermore, the evaluation observes that a public basic research funding agency such as the Academy is one of the cornerstones of the science system in all leading science countries. A distinctive feature of both the Academy and its foreign sister organisations is the science community’s role in the peer review process and in decision-making bodies. The Academy is not only a government funding agency but also one of the environments where the science community discusses the future directions of research.

The key recommendations of the evaluation include increasing the volume of Academy research funding and the appropriation made available for the Academy’s operating expenses. In addition, the evaluation underscores the need to strengthen the framework conditions for research, education and innovation and to provide more balanced regulation and supervision.

In view of the objectives set out by the Parliamentary RDI Working Group and the recommendations of the international evaluation, the Academy’s financial outlook for the years ahead gives cause for concern.

The general government fiscal plan drawn up last year is still in force. Under these spending limits, the Academy of Finland’s budget authority will be cut by up to one-third, or 120–150 million euros. This is projected to translate into losses of more than 1,000 research posts and to jeopardise the appeal and attraction of Finland in the international science field. The cutbacks will undermine the standard of skills and competencies, competitiveness and prospects for sustainable growth. Inevitably, cuts to research will also mean cuts to education.

It’s imperative then that new decisions are made this spring to reverse these cutbacks so that Finnish science can be steered back onto the growth track envisioned by the Parliamentary RDI Working Group. It is good to see that some of the challenges related to gaming revenue allocation have now been resolved, an important step towards reversing the cutbacks. The target now must be to increase funding to a level equivalent to 4% of GDP in 2030.

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