Research and industry – and the country’s export industry in particular – are important sources of wealth and prosperity for Finland. Research is vital to the health of the nation, to the functioning of the social system, and to understanding how we can best interact with the environment.
Like many agencies funding research, the Academy of Finland is keen to ensure that its funding goes towards supporting significant research, and takes the challenge of assessing the impact of the research it funds very seriously. It is extremely difficult to forecast and assess the true social significance and impact of research, however.
There are many reasons for this. First of all, impact is multidimensional and often indirect, which means that a straightforward input-output model can rarely be used. The true impact of research is exerted through highly complex chains of influence, with marked differences between different disciplines, and can take decades to filter through.
The Academy of Finland contributed to the SIGHT 2006 project aimed at assessing the state, quality, and impact of Finnish science, and is now working with Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Technology and Innovation on the SIGHT 2009 project to develop a new framework for impact assessment and produce more effective tools for assessing the impact of research and research funding.
Scientific and social impact
The reports produced as part of SIGHT 2006 made a distinction between two aspects of impact: scientific and social.
Scientific impact is the easier of the two to assess, particularly if the focus of concern is with immediate outputs. Many output indicators are based on analysing publication and citation indices, and are widely used to compare the performance of research teams and individual scholars and scientists.
Based on the number of scientific articles and books published in Finland and their ranking in EU25 and OECD output, as well as recent trends in scientific citation indices, one can argue that Finnish science has performed extremely well over the past 20 or more years.
The strength and weakness of these kinds of indicators lie in their quantitative emphasis, however.
In terms of industrial and commercial impact, the SIGHT 2006 findings demonstrated that the benefits of Academy of Finland projects have been reflected in three ways: in new products and processes, patents, and methodological know-how; in new business, technological, and social innovations and increased business profitability; and in social and cultural aspects. The latter cover areas such as education, health and well-being, regional development, employment, environmental issues, policy, and administrative and organisational impact.
Project reports compiled by the Academy’s Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering show that research results have found widespread commercial and industrial application. The results of approximately every other project have found commercial application within five to seven and a half years from the launch of a project, typically through the involvement of a partner.
Although funding from the Research Council goes almost exclusively to research teams based at a university or research institute, many of the Council’s customers have close contacts with business and industry. In 7% of all projects, a new company has been set up to apply the results of research funded by the Academy.
Focusing on innovation
The recent proposal for a national innovation strategy in Finland defines innovations as ‘knowledge-based competitive assets’ that translate the results of basic research and underlying expertise into developments that benefit companies and society generally.
The proposal places heavy emphasis on skills and competence, and research is important here as it plays a central part in generating knowledge and competence. A solid competence base requires investment in education and research, and a commitment to motivating people to innovate by supporting new and developing talent. As part of this, Finland needs to be able to attract the best international experts.
The proposal highlights the fact that knowledge, created in scientific communities and networks, should be an integral part of brand management, and that interfaces between different competence areas are particularly important. Accessing the relevant networks requires unique competence that can be used, in turn, as an exchange asset.
The importance of basic research
As part of a national innovation strategy, we also need to take more account of areas of high-quality basic research where there are no specific, knowledge-based competitive advantages in sight. This calls for a broader perspective on research that goes beyond the goals of policy on education, science, the economy, or health.
We should never allow the agenda of basic research to be dictated by short-term objectives. All major inventions and discoveries have come about as a result of high-risk research; and benefits can take decades to manifest themselves in many cases.
A good example of this, in the field of environmental science, can be found in the work of the Swedish researcher, Svante Arrhenius. He was the first to predict the greenhouse effect, in an article in 1896, by demonstrating how the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes the world’s surface temperature to rise. His calculations showed that a twofold increase in atmospheric CO2 would cause an increase in temperature of a couple of degrees, and he predicted that this would take around 3,000 years.
His views were fiercely contested until the 1960s and have only recently been accepted. Unfortunately, his timeframe of 3,000 years has shrunk to just 100 years in the light of current evidence.
|Basic research is essential for long-term innovation, as it can help us understand the fundamentals of things such as the elementary particles underpinning the universe, although it is unlikely to yield immediate benefits. Photo: Visa Vehmanen / Amarantti.