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Showcasing high-level research worldwide

Three key functions lie at the heart of the work of the Academy of Finland: providing funding for cutting-edge scientific research, serving as an expert organisation in developing science policy, and strengthening the overall position of science and research in Finland. As part of this, the Academy coordinates Finland’s national centre of excellence programmes in research.
Academy of Finland

Finland’s third national centre of excellence programme, for 2006–2011, will be launched at the beginning of 2006, and will involve 23 centres. Seven of these are newcomers to the programme, while 16 were also involved in the previous, 2000–2005 programme, and now have revised and updated research plans.

The Academy received 143 letters of intent in the first round of applications for the latest centre of excellence programme. Just over a third of these, or 53 units, went through to the second round.

The success of the centre of excellence programmes highlights the fact that the investments that have been made in R&D in recent years are paying off. Finnish research is now more multidisciplinary and enjoys greater international exposure than it has ever done, and is more networked than ever, both nationally and internationally. The large number of high-level research teams now active also made the selection process for the latest programme even tougher.

Coordinated by the Academy of Finland

The 1997 national strategy on centres of excellence in research is based on Finland’s general science and technology policy strategies and their aim of raising the quality of Finnish research and improving its international competitiveness, visibility, and standing.

The Finnish model defines a centre of excellence as comprising one or more high-level teams sharing a common and clearly defined set of research objectives working under common management. A centre of excellence can consist of researchers based at a university or a research institute, or spread across several different organisations, and can also work in cooperation with a university or research institute in the private sector.

The Academy of Finland is responsible for implementing, developing, and updating the national strategy on centres of excellence in research. In this, it focuses on issues such as promoting research excellence, fostering cooperation between different actors, and integrating research and researcher training into policy on research and technology.

Cooperation has been particularly fruitful in the area of funding. This has involved not only the Academy of Finland, but also host organisations, such as universities and research institutes, as well as Tekes, National Technology Agency. Various foundations and companies have also participated through contractual funding.

The benefits of long-term funding

The first national centre of excellence programme in research, which extended from 2000 to 2005, involved 26 centres of excellence and seven core facility organisations. The latter have at least one centre of excellence and other high-level research teams for which they produce and to which they offer services.

The Academy of Finland awarded a total of close to €55 million for the centres selected for the programme, while Tekes funded 11 units to the tune of nearly €11 million.

The second national centre of excellence programme, running from 2002 to 2007, involves 16 centres. The Academy has allocated funding totalling just over €33 million to these centres, and Tekes some €5.5 million to six units. In addition to earmarked funding, both the Academy and Tekes also support centres of excellence and their projects through other competition-based funding.

The experience gained from the centre of excellence programmes has been very positive, according to the units themselves, their host organisations, and core facility organisations. The work of the scientific advisory boards that support each centre of excellence – and which are composed of internationally renowned researchers and are responsible for encouraging new initiatives and proposing new methods and structures – has also proved valuable.

The funding channelled through the centre of excellence programmes has been particularly appreciated, as it enables researchers to carry out basic research in fields where funding normally tends to be awarded on a short-term basis. Six-year funding provides ample opportunities to start work on completely new areas of study.

The work of the centres of excellence has also led to an increase in cooperation between research groups and in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research, and resulted in better international visibility for Finnish research.

Finland’s national centres of excellence showcase Finnish research nationally and internationally.

Further challenges

There are still a number of challenges left, however. Finnish centres of excellence and their research deserve still more international visibility; and more effort needs to be put into promoting national, European, and worldwide networking. Investments in researcher mobility and young researchers’ careers also need to be increased.

Additional tools to further promote cooperation between centres of excellence and business and industry also need to be developed, as one of the key tasks of centres of excellence is to transfer knowledge and know-how into both the public and private sector.

Under the current centre of excellence strategy, companies can cooperate with centres of excellence both as sources of research and as end-users. As research resources, companies can network with a centre of excellence or even function as part of the unit – to enable the best researchers in companies and centres of excellence to work very flexibly in each other’s research teams.

While Finland’s centres of excellence and centre of excellence programmes provide excellent opportunities for promoting high-level research and researcher training and making use of research results, cooperation is essential to getting the most out of these opportunities. Long-term cooperation between researchers, universities, research institutes, business, society, and funding organisations is key to the future success of high-level research and enhancing its international competitiveness and impact.

> Ritva Dammert
(Published in High Technology Finland )