The Finnish science strategy needs an overhaul

In this Blog, a strong case is being made for improving Finnish science policies and to initiate communations between leading reseachers and ministry representatives

Globally, drug development and health technologies are among the most rapidly growing business fields. Also in Finland, the two biggest pharma companies, Bayer and Orion have been among the biggest tax payers for years and health technologies constitutes the most profitable line of business related to exports of high-end technologies. In order to support the further growth of the field, Finnish government established a growth strategy for health technologies some years ago, but its implementation has been very slow and funding very marginal. However, at the same time the government has made significant investments to the mining, ICT, and technology-related research. In the accompanied video Professor Jukka Westermarck (Turku Bioscience Centre) and Marco Hautalahti  (Director of National Biobanks), discuss the questions why government does not see health technologies as profit-making opportunities, and how big a problem is the underfunding of the growth strategy of health technologies? The panel discussion was held as part of “Mediuutiset” (Medical News) webinar Dec, 15, 2020 “How do centers of excellence change healthcare?”

Mediuutiset panel discussion “How centers of excellence are changing healthcare?”

On the same subject, Prof. Westermarck also published an article Jan 18 in Helsingin Sanomat

A translation of the article is provided below.

Helsingin Sanomat 18.1.2021 – “Vieraskynä” (Guest writer)

Current higher education policies do not support the pursuit of high-quality science

Resolving the problems and restoring trust would require direct discussions between the ministry and top researchers.

Finland is in great danger of losing the knowledge base on which we would solve future problems and on the basis of which new export products would be developed. The main reason for the breakdown of the knowledge base is the university policy of the Ministry of Education and Culture, in which the preconditions for doing science have been forgotten. None of the reforms carried out by the Ministry over the last ten years has improved the conditions for conducting high-quality science in research groups.

Compared to international competitors, Finnish research groups have clearly weaker conditions to do their work. The brain drain of researchers abroad has been significant in recent years.

The part of the Academy of Finland’s project funding directed to the use of researchers is insufficient for conducting science internationally. Nor does the university funding model reward quality science, and universities therefore have no financial incentive to support research teams with their core funding. The Ministry has not been able to work with universities to solve problems related to the career paths of academic researchers.

Although prioritizing the basic tasks of universities is problematic, it must be understood that the starting point for the tasks is high-quality research. The societal impact of science is also largely based on it. We can assume research groups to make breakthrough observations only if we make sure the conditions are there to make the best possible science. In turn, the findings form the basis for commercially significant innovations. Thus, the operating conditions of research groups also build the foundation of Finland’s economic competitiveness.

In its higher education policy, the Ministry of Education and Culture sees universities mainly as educational institutions that produce degrees. Another direction of higher education policy has been to mix the interests of universities and business, for example with flagship projects. Otherwise, the Ministry has had no interest in improving the conditions for doing science.

One concrete example of this is the recently completed study by the Ministry of Education and Culture and the Academy of Finland, which looked at the problems of the total cost model. The study focused on the perspective of university financial management but did not even attempt to identify solution needs from the perspective of academics.

According to several studies, the current line of the Ministry of Education and Culture does not have the support of scientists responsible for the level of science in Finland. Active researchers have neither had a say in the discussions about questions of the state of science in the recent years. Higher education policy has been guided by actors who do not have up-to-date experience of what it takes to do science at an international level.

The appointment of the Minister of Science raised the promise that in the future the Ministry could also implement science policy in addition to education policy. Focusing on the conditions for researchers to do science would be one of the most important changes a Minister of Science could make. For change to take place, an understanding would be needed that the level of science is not determined by structures such as universities or institutions, but by individual researchers and research teams at universities.

Identifying and resolving the science policy problems of the Ministry of Education and Culture would require open discussions and the restoration of trust between the ministry and the scientific community.

Such discussions on the conditions for conducting science should take place directly between active researchers representing the current state of science in Finland and the Minister of Science. This group of top researchers includes academy professors and academics from different disciplines.

The discussions would be a concrete start for science policy in the 2020s, recognizing that supporting the capacity of research teams to raise the level of science and reinforce the resulting societal implications.

Jukka Westermarck

The author is a Professor of Cancer Biology at the University of Turku and a member of the board of the Finnish Academy of Sciences.

Photo by Possessed Photography on Unsplash