Anu Kaukovirta will replace Kimmo Nuotio as Chair of the Strategic Research Council at the beginning of 2022. Despite the threat of financial cuts, they both have confidence in the future of strategic research and the possibility to preserve the important and special characteristics of the funding.
Kimmo Nuotio and Anu Kaukovirta are familiar with each other’s operating methods: after all, Kaukovirta is the second vice chair of the current Strategic Research Council (SRC).
“We’ve worked together a lot and shared tasks in the SRC. I was very pleased to hear that Anu has been appointed to lead the new council from 2022 to 2024,” Nuotio says.
The Strategic Research Council, which operates in connection with the Academy of Finland, started its activities in 2014. At the beginning of Nuotio’s chairship in 2019, the council had only been in operation for one term of office, which had, of course, largely consisted of the creation of new ideas and experimentation.
Nuotio works as Professor of Criminal Law at the University of Helsinki, and his specialist fields include racism and hate speech. He explains that it has been important for him to develop the theme preparation process and make it as open and transparent as possible.
“The council does not accept thematic proposals from individual parties separately. Instead, the preparation is carried out in an open and organised manner. For example, we have an electronic survey open to all, through which people can propose research themes. In addition, we organise workshops where thematic ideas are refined together. We publish the research themes selected for processing already before the actual workshops take place. This has also increased openness and reduced the number of separate requests for information,” Nuotio says.
Impact assessed from many perspectives
Anu Kaukovirta is a Doctor of Technology in biochemistry. Among other things, she has worked as a technology manager at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and as an innovation director in the food industry. She is currently in charge of the production systems unit at Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke).
“After the creation of the SRC, there were doubts about the funding principles, as everything was so new. With his own diplomacy, Kimmo has successfully stabilised the operations and dispelled criticism. The permissive and open discussion culture reigning within the council has been visible outwards and also brought stability,” says Kaukovirta.
One of the tasks of the council led by Nuotio has been to build a tool for evaluating the impact of the funded programmes. The three-stage model includes a self-assessment, an evaluation of social impact by an external consultant and, finally, an evaluation of scientific activities.
“Only four programmes funded by the SRC have been completed and evaluated so far. They were all three-year programmes, that is, rather short compared to the current ones. There are preliminary results on their impact, which are promising. There has been a wide variety of interaction with decision-makers, along different routes. Information has even been supplied for the purposes of drafting legislation,” Nuotio says.
Kaukovirta talks about the recommendations and good practices developed in the projects.
“It’s been possible to try them out, as interaction plays such a strong role in the funding.”
Decision-makers and researchers became interested in each other
Strategic research has attracted international interest. In Nuotio’s view, what is the most important contribution of strategic research to Finland? “Managing to convince everyone that societal policymaking needs to be based on knowledge and expertise!”
This might seem self-evident, but according to Nuotio, this is not the case. “Decision-making often forms an isolated entity, like an island. SRC funding has increased interaction between policymakers and the research community by creating new types of structural links between them. This has accelerated the transfer of information.”
Nuotio has been delighted to notice the change in the scientific community and among decision-makers.
“Busy decision-makers pay more attention to the strengthening of knowledge base. Researcher communities are more interested in the plans and strategies being prepared in society, and consider how to support and produce information for them.”
Kaukovirta welcomes the fact that the SRC has made the Finnish research culture more multidisciplinary.
“Research funding has been sector-based here. Academic research has been funded separately from applied research, which has been funded through Tekes. A multidisciplinary financial instrument such as the SRC was missing, and it has now proved its worth. Although the first large-scale SRC programmes are still in progress, it’s already possible to see that they’re creating a broader understanding of the selected themes.”
Nuotio also draws attention to the renewal of science.
“In large consortia, researchers from very different fields of science and research units can meet and draw inspiration from each other, which stimulates the renewal of science. It will benefit the world of science and ultimately society as a whole.”
It is worthwhile to be involved from the start
The information on possible funding cuts to strategic research has come as a complete surprise to Nuotio and Kaukovirta. In the Government Fiscal Plan for 2023, the budget authority for strategic research funding was subject to a cut threat of 25 million euros. At present, the annual SRC funding budget is 55.6 million euros.
“The Government has commissioned an evaluation of SRC activities, which will be completed next year. Thus, the proposal to cut the funding was made without researched information. It’s clearly contrary to the SRC’s principle of research-based policymaking,” Nuotio remarks.
He points out that decisions on the cuts have not yet been finalised. The issue will be discussed again during the government spending limits discussion in spring 2022. Nuotio hopes that the cuts for 2023 will not be implemented.
“I‘m confident that the future looks bright for strategic research. It’s a big investment, but it will pay off many times over. During autumn, the current council will make every effort to ensure a smooth transfer of responsibilities to the next council.”
Whatever happens, the special characteristics of SRC research funding will not be abandoned, says Anu Kaukovirta.
“I feel positive, because in any case we have good building blocks for the next funding period. Long-term, large-scale projects and the multidisciplinary approach will be maintained. Funding will be reserved for interaction in the future, too. Social influence is created through a good interaction plan.”
However, the number of programmes and funded projects may have to be reduced. In recent years, between two and four new programmes have been initiated annually.
“The goal is to open at least one research programme for applications annually and to keep the funding period long. This way, the financial instrument will retain its significance and continuity.”
Kaukovirta thinks that it is no longer necessary to make major changes to the operating model.
“We now have a functioning instrument and a good preparation process in place. Discussions in the thematic workshops have been very good. There have been many participants and the themes have been refined well, just as intended.”
As Chair, Kaukovirta wants to make SRC funding even more well-known.
“We don’t like the idea of a special “SRC group of researchers” being formed. Instead, we prefer to continuously involve new research groups and fields of science in the projects. I hope that an increasing number of researchers will be actively involved in our thematic preparation process. This way, they can affect the proposed themes and introduce ideas for them.”
Original text in Finnish: Ulla Willberg