We must move forwards now

The Nordic region is a group of small countries in an increasingly globalised world. Two people who have played a key role in NordForsk activities discuss whether NordForsk can make a difference.
 We must move forwards now
Europe has faced huge economic difficulties over the past few years and the problems are not over yet. The Nordic countries, with the exception of Iceland, have weathered the storm somewhat better. But these countries, too, have encountered many challenges, and there are more to come. Can increased research cooperation help us to meet these challenges?

Gard Titlestad, Head of the Department of Knowledge and Welfare at the Nordic Council of Ministers met his Finnish colleague Anneli Pauli, Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Research Directorate-General, to discuss this question. Ms Pauli was a member of the NordForsk board for several years.

Titlestad: The Nordic countries are among the best places in the world to carry out innovation activities. That is why we will be able to meet the challenges ahead. The Nordic countries are also fortunate in that we are free to make a wide number of choices. For this we can thank small power differences, established democracies and well-functioning public systems. These crucial factors help to create open societies with great potential. The greatest challenge we face is that each of us on our own is so small. Even though we are among the best in the world in a number of areas, we each exert very little influence over global developments. And the influence we do have could dwindle further.

Pauli: I agree that each of the Nordic countries is far too small to make a difference on its own, both in Europe and globally. The Nordic countries together have only about 25 million inhabitants, while Poland alone has almost 40 million. Despite this, we have many strengths, and by combining these strengths we can make a difference. That is the basic idea behind NordForsk. But it does not mean that we should do everything together. We will cooperate at the Nordic level on matters where it is clear that our working together will create significant added value.

Can NordForsk make a difference?

Pauli: NordForsk is on the right track. But it has to step up its efforts and become more visible in Europe and globally. There is great potential for NordForsk to become a pioneer as an organisation where ideas and resources are pooled at a metaregional level.

Titlestad: As NordForsk celebrates its five-year anniversary, it is moving in a very positive direction. The Top-level Research Initiative (TRI), the Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoE) Programme and the Joint Nordic Use of Research Infrastructure initiative are all going well. These are wonderful, new developments, and examples of Nordic integration in practice! We are doing something neither we nor anyone else has succeeded in doing before.

Where does Nordic research cooperation go from here?

Titlestad: I think that we are now at a turning point when it comes to Nordic research cooperation. We have shown that we can make it work well. But if we are to achieve even more, politicians in the Nordic countries must be willing to continue to invest in Nordic research cooperation. Moving forwards will be no easy task. NordForsk operates with relatively limited resources. To move on from here, we need more drive and dynamism in our efforts. Things won’t just happen on their own.

Pauli: I totally agree that NordForsk has too few resources at its disposal. This is a real stumbling block to its further development. I have a feeling that the Nordic politicians have not yet fully grasped that this is something unique, something which should be fostered in a systematic way and cultivated to become an important building block in the European research and innovation area and even on the global arena.

What are the similarities and differences between EU and Nordic research cooperation, aside from the fact that the volume of EU research is so much greater?

Titlestad: The challenges faced by the EU and the Nordic region are basically the same. Much revolves around promoting the genuine innovators among small and medium-sized companies.

Pauli: The aim of the Europe 2020 strategy adopted by the European Council in June 2010 is to promote smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in Europe. This is an aim shared by the Nordic countries, and one which we can help to achieve. First, growth in the Nordic countries can be described as "smart" since we invest a lot in knowledge creation. Sweden and Finland are European leaders in terms of the percentage of gross domestic product invested in research and innovation. Second, sustainability has long been a guiding principle in almost everything we do in the Nordic region. Third, our welfare states are well-known for promoting inclusiveness in society. But none of these strengths can be safeguarded without active policies and wisely targeted research and innovation activities to support them.

Titlestad: EU research cooperation obviously has access to significantly greater resources than NordForsk. But the advantage of Nordic cooperation is that it is based on direct cooperation between governments.

Pauli: Another real strength of Nordic cooperation is that there is much more confidence and trust between the Nordic actors than there is at the European level in general. This is a competitive advantage which could be exploited much more.

What specific steps should NordForsk take now?

Titlestad: If we want to achieve more with NordForsk, we need to create even closer contacts between those carrying out research and those using it. We need to enhance our ability to make use of the results generated from research and innovation activities.

Pauli: Yes, that is a very important point. I think it would be better to talk of knowledge sharing and exchange, rather than knowledge transfer, which sounds more like a linear, one-way process. There should be more interaction between researchers and those who use the results, before the results are published. There should also be more joint projects between academia and industry, as well as between academia and those developing public sector services and regulations. I am calling for a challenge-based approach. But by this I don’t mean that researchers should become consultants. It is crucial that they keep their independence as well as their freedom of thought and creativity.

(Anneli Pauli does not speak on behalf of the European Commission in the interview.)

The article is from the 5-year jubilee issue of NordForsk magazine.

Text: Bård Amundsen
Poto: Terje Heiestad
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