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Maintaining excellence into the future

Academy of Finland
Greater agility in responding to the challenges facing society – from climate change and energy to health and wellbeing – will be increasingly important in the research world of the future, believes Marja Makarow of the Academy of Finland.

The responsibilities of the Academy of Finland cover three main areas: acting as a major source of funding for fundamental research; serving as an expert body on science and science policy questions; and promoting science and research in Finland and the position of Finnish research internationally across a comprehensive spectrum of disciplines.

The Academy’s more than €300 million of annual research funding contributes to the work of around 5,000 people at universities and research institutes across the country, and goes to a mix of cutting-edge basic research, research programmes, and international scientific cooperation.

The Academy works with universities, EU agencies, and various international organisations. Supporting individual researchers and encouraging greater mobility within the research community are also seen as priorities, as is participation in public debate on overall science policy, the ethics and sustainability of research work, and the importance of good scientific practices.

Regular reviews help maintain high standards

As part of its mandate, the Academy of Finland regularly evaluates its operations and the impact they have, and has reviewed the state and quality of scientific research in Finland at three-yearly intervals since 1997 to monitor developments in different disciplines and use the input this provides for developing future science policy. The latest of these reviews was published towards the end of 2012.

Investing in the best research and the best researchers will be increasingly important in the future, believes Marja Makarow. Herself a Professor of Applied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and former Vice Rector of the University of Helsinki, she was appointed the Academy of Finland’s Vice President for Research in 2012.
This confirmed that Finland continues to rank highly in OECD and EU27 comparisons in terms of indicators such as the proportion of GDP spent on research, development, and innovation, the frequency with which Finnish research publications are cited internationally, and the number of R&D personnel per 1,000 employees – to name three of the most commonly quoted. In a number of other areas, however, the review pointed to more average performance. Cumulative improvements in the quality of Finnish research, for example, appear to have plateaued.

The review also highlighted the impact that economic uncertainty is having on R&D funding, and which is already beginning to affect core funding for Finland’s universities and funding for national competitive research. It also underlined the growing need for Finland to make greater use of international competitive funding and further emphasise the importance of multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research.

Focusing on excellence

“To improve the quality and impact of scientific research in Finland, we will need to pay increasing attention to optimising the use of the scarcer resources in absolute terms that we will probably have at our disposal, at least over the short term,” says Marja Makarow, Vice President for Research at the Academy of Finland and former Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation.

“We have definitely achieved a lot as a result of the consistent programme of state research funding over the last 20-25 years, but we simply can’t cover everything, at least if our goal is topquality research, as it should be. We will need to focus more on areas where we are among the very best and on research that is clearly aimed at achieving innovative breakthroughs.

The more than €300 million of annual research funding provided by the Academy of Finland contributes to the work of around 5,000 people at universities and research institutes across Finland.
“This, in turn, will call for even greater cooperation between different organisations – including funding organisations such as the Academy of Finland and Tekes – and the creation of more research alliances, both nationally and internationally. The reform of the university system, which has already been implemented, and the plans for a parallel reform of state-funded research institutions, should make these choices easier to make, however, I believe.”

“And as the pressure to develop new partnerships grows, we shouldn’t forget that it always pays to pick a partner who’s just a little bit better than you are; that’s the best way to improve everyone’s performance.”

In the final analysis, excellence in research, like everything else, is all about people, believes Makarow.

“This is why the importance of being able to continue recruiting the best researchers and the best talent among the generations of new students that are coming along must be given the attention it deserves, not least when it comes to funding decisions. Encouraging the young generation to choose a career in research and promoting greater mobility among researchers – together with further enhancing things like tenure track opportunities and attracting more international researchers to Finland – will all be particularly important here.”

Research Councils and Centres of Excellence

The Academy of Finland’s four Research Councils – covering the biosciences and the environment, culture and society, the natural sciences and engineering, and health – act as its ‘eyes and ears’ across the research community and are designed to ensure that the Academy remains abreast of key developments.

In the funding area, one of the key channels through which the Academy of Finland channels its resources are its Centres of Excellence (CoEs), which are based in fields that are considered to be of key importance to both science and society. Designed to raise scientific standards and generate new scientific knowledge and know-how, these CoEs provide six years of funding for specific research teams.

The 2012-2017 programme covers 15 Centres of Excellence, comprising teams from a total of 11 universities and research institutes working in a number of fields, ranging from the interaction between cells and intercellular substance and molecular system immunology and physiology to modernisation processes in Russia and the history of Finnish social structures.

The CoE in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Meteorology of Atmospheric Composition and Climate Change headed up by Academy Professor Markku Kulmala, featured elsewhere in HighTech Finland 2013 (pp. 134-5 of the print edition), is part of the 2008-2013 programme. Aimed at reducing the scientific uncertainty that continues to surround climate change, the work of this CoE has leveraged the expertise of 30 professors and other senior scientists and around 100 other scientists and postgraduate students.

A total of 14 new Centres of Excellence under the 2014-2019 CoE programme were announced in June 2013. These will involve research teams from 12 universities or research institutes in fields ranging from laser scanning and biomembrane research to cardiovascular and metabolic disease and long-term solar variability.

(Published in HighTech Finland 2013)