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Taking a closer look at science policy

Academy of Finland
While Finland has succeeded in transforming itself into a leader in many areas of science and technology, despite its small size and relatively brief history as an industrial nation, its peers have not been standing still either. Analysing what they have been doing and where Finland stands in comparison highlights some interesting differences.

As many may remember, Finland moved up rapidly through the ranks of OECD statistics on national performance in the R&D area during the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, from middleranking status to a top performer.

This improvement was reflected in both the country’s investments in R&D and overall performance as measured against a variety of yardsticks. It also reflected the change that was being seen in Finland’s position in the world economy and its shift from an investment-driven economy to an innovation-driven one. The major programme of additional funding channelled by government into research and development between 1996 and 1999 played a major part in this development, as did the strong growth of Finland’s ICT sector.

Two extensive reports published in 2009 – a review of the state and quality of scientific research in Finland and an international evaluation of Finland’s innovation system – showed that the drive behind this positive development had begun to slow, however. At the same time, many other small European countries, such as Ireland, Norway, Denmark, and Austria, were moving ahead.

What have people been focusing on?

To gain a better understanding of developments, the Academy of Finland undertook a study in 2010 into national policy on R&D and science in five of Finland’s peers: Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. This concluded that the measures taken to promote science and research by the five countries in question in recent years have been broadly similar.

Their focus has been less on promoting qualities seen as particularly national strengths and more on excellent performance in areas that many other countries are concentrating on as well. They appear to have implemented, or at least experimented with, measures pursued in countries perceived as being pioneers in a particular area, even where the hard evidence for the benefits of these measures has been lacking or been thin on the ground. This convergence of policy in promoting science and R&D can be expected to continue accelerating.

Switzerland differed from the other countries in the study, as research there has continued to approach the best carried out in the US, and could well bypass US research in the relatively near future.

Switzerland has achieved this through rather traditional means as well, by relying on strong, internationally competitive universities, a high level of public funding for basic research, extensive and diversified international cooperation, and by promoting international mobility among researchers.

Five clear differentiators

Staying at the top of your game calls for keeping a sharp eye on what you are doing and why, and keeping an equally sharp eye on those around you. Photo: Anita Westerback.
Although no single factor stands out in the comparison, five significant differences to Finland can be identified: the proportion of international researchers in the national research community, the way research is funded at universities, the research infrastructure, the salaries paid to researchers, and the role of programme-based funding.

In the case of the first of these differentiators, the proportion of international researchers in the national research community is particularly high in Switzerland and low in Finland.

In terms of the public sector funding of basic research at universities and polytechnics, the public sector accounts for only 46% of this type of research in Finland, while it accounts for over 70% in the Netherlands, and over 60% in Norway, Switzerland, and Denmark.

Infrastructure development has also received more attention and investment in the other countries in the study than it has in Finland. Proactive investment programmes are currently under way in Norway and Denmark, for example.

The salaries paid to researchers are also a factor that marks off Finland from the others in the study, and affects universities, research institutes, and the private sector. In the competition for the best talent, this is a clear challenge.

In the case of funding based on specific research programmes, Finland has been, with the exception of Ireland, the clear leader.

While there is no clear recipe for success here, these differences provide some valuable insights and useful food for thought, discussion, and decision-making on science policy, in Finland and elsewhere.

Graph: Funding for R&D in higher education by source, according to the latest available statistics.

> Paavo Löppönen
(Published in HighTech Finland 2011)