With funding from the Strategic Research Council (SRC), multidisciplinary interactive cutting-edge research can be brought together to solve the most vicious of problems. Given the long-term nature of the SRC’s projects, other projects and activities supporting the same objectives can also be established alongside them. That is why SRC funding has leverage to produce more than its size suggests. For example, our project, the SRC-funded MULTA project, is the pillar of the Carbon Action platform, which is currently gaining international interest.
My journey with issues typical for strategic research started some twelve years ago when I started as research director at the Ministry of the Environment. I was the first research director at the Ministry. I found it great to be able to develop the new position. First, we drafted the Ministry’s R&D strategy. Our vision was to ensure that there is reliable information available to help respond proactively to environmental issues.
Research institutes such as the Finnish Environment Institute play a key role in the long-term production of reliable information for the Ministry. However, the strategic goal set for the Ministry’s own R&D funding of having reliable information available to help respond proactively to environmental issues was a challenging one. The Ministry’s own limited R&D funding was mainly directed towards studies supporting core processes and development projects with a short time span. While developing the strategy, we reflected on how to achieve longer-term R&D projects that serve the Ministry’s objectives by using the resources of others. At that time, it felt that there were not enough resources to do so.
Funding strategic research informs decision-making
There was a great change in 2013, when the comprehensive reform of state research institutes and research funding (TULA) took place. The reform produced new funding instruments, funding for the SRC among them. It stung to take money for the new financial instruments from the budgets of other organisations, such as research institutes, but at the same time it motivated us to make the instruments as effective as possible. The SRC funding instrument specifically provided a much-needed opportunity for new, long-term, interactive funding.
At first, we learned about combining high-quality science and collaboration by trial and error. It was not as easy to change customary ways of doing things as it was structures. At the Ministry, we started working earnestly with the SRC projects right from the start. A few of the most fond memories I have are our close collaboration with the WINLAND project in the Ministry’s foresight activities, close co-development during the project application phase in the Urbanising Society (URBAN) programme, as well as the transition arena supporting the Ministry’s work that was implemented with researchers in the SET-project. In addition to interactive collaboration, we received excellent research data on a silver platter — without the Ministry’s own funding and project bureaucracy.
Research and practice entwined
In 2018, I changed sides. In my new role as content director at the Baltic Sea Action Group (BSAG), I was suddenly applying for funding. Our project MULTA, which focused on a climate-resilient food system, started in summer 2019.
The project brings together farmers, advisers, researchers, businesses and decision-makers on a very practical level. Farmers are at the heart of this collaboration. The implementation of carbon farming is researched on 100 carbon farms. Carbon farmers have found collaboration with researchers valuable, while researchers have gained useful practical insights from farmers. Collaboration has brought new motivation and relevance to farmers for practicing their profession. This is concrete collaborative learning at its best!
Interaction enables scaling
Knowledge and practices have been scaled up in different ways in the MULTA project. These include a research-based e-college for regenerative farming and business collaboration, through which companies can educate their farms to begin carbon farming or develop procurement criteria and products to support regenerative farming. In order to present the results and the verification system under development we launched the Field Observatory web application which allows real-time monitoring of farmland carbon sequestration and the factors affecting it. This paves the way for a reliable verification system that is necessary for policy-making, decision-making and support for sustainable business. Our work has been noted in international networks, and we were able to report on these fruits of our labour at the climate change conference in Glasgow.
The MULTA project is a part of the Carbon Action platform, which aims at systemic change towards a regenerative agriculture. The platform includes numerous projects and receives funding from several organisations. Carbon Action enables collaboration between different projects. The platform now hosts more than 3,000 actors and has received a lot of recognition. The MULTA project is an enabler and a pillar of the entire Carbon Action platform, on which we have been able to build all other collaboration. SRC funding can produce more than its size suggests.
I do not believe that any other funding could have brought together, on a long-term basis, excellent multidisciplinary research and close interaction, as well as build on other projects and activities at this level. Carbon sequestration of agricultural land is indeed a hot topic in Finland, at EU level and globally, which means that the demand will continue to be high.
While writing this blog, I went through some old papers from my time at the Ministry of the Environment. The same objectives and problems have been identified, although terms have slightly varied. Our understanding of how these problems are intertwined has increased over the years. There is an urgent need for science-based systemic solutions. We need more strategic research, not less.