Rector Kola: Universities need international funding

Acquiring international funding is a key factor for improving the quality of Finnish research and education, as well as for increasing societal wellbeing, says Kola in Vieraskynä column in Helsingin Sanomat.

Universities need international funding

"The need for international funding for developing the quality of research and teaching at Finnish universities is increasing. Today, the education and research conducted at the universities is primarily funded with national resources.

The Vision 2030 project of the Ministry of Education and Culture identifies the need for more experts as well as higher education, research and innovation activities of a high standard to meet future demand. According to the vision, the Finnish higher education sector must be developed into an increasingly competitive active partner in the acquisition of research funding and recruitment on the international level. The goal is to increase the share of domestic public and private contributions to research and development activities to 4% of the GDP by 2030.

However, there are limits to Finnish resources and funders. They alone will not suffice for developing the quality and impact of research, as well as the global success of Finnish universities. Furthermore, Finnish funding is not allocated in sufficient quantities to many internationally significant research areas.

The entire society will benefit when Finnish universities are granted the external funding they seek. Every euro invested in universities will turn out a fivefold profit for society, a recent impact report of European universities indicates.

Acquiring international funding is a key factor for improving the quality of Finnish research and education, as well as for increasing societal wellbeing.

Funding awarded by the European Research Council has played a significant part in the international research funding received by universities. The University of Helsinki has acquired ERC funding for more than 60 projects. Altogether, these projects have raised over €100 million in funding, enabling top research in a multitude of scientific fields.

Great changes are on the horizon in European research funding, so far with unpredictable consequences. The next framework programme for research (FP9) is currently being prepared, and Finland must do its part to influence its content and funding. The separation of Britain and the EU will deprive the union of one of its most significant research funders. Brexit will weaken the EU’s competitiveness and complicate scientific collaboration.

For the stability of research funding, it is important for all EU member states to focus funding on research and higher education, as well as on the ensuing innovations. The Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union will fall on the latter half of 2019, after the Finnish parliamentary elections. At this juncture, we have a great opportunity to highlight the significance of education and expertise to the competitiveness of the union. Finland should also emphasise the importance of scientific knowledge during its Chairmanship of the Arctic Council.

The European Union has worked hard to disseminate high-level expertise to the countries of eastern Central Europe. The League of European Research Universities LERU, a network of leading European universities, has also intensified its cooperation with universities in Eastern Europe to promote joint practices and an improved European research and education policy. However, the eastern EU states have not been overly enthusiastic about contributing to research funding in the EU, since they have not been very successful in their applications for such funding.

As the field of European research funding undergoes changes, partners must be sought also outside Europe and from international foundations. For years, the University of Helsinki has collaborated with Peking University, thus gaining a foothold in Chinese research projects and funding. In order to raise awareness of Finnish higher education, the Finnish Government is also providing support for global research and education collaboration between universities through a new network.

There are no quick wins when it comes to applying for international research funding. The application process requires sustained efforts, networks and knowhow.

Research cooperation between scientific disciplines, as well as increasingly close relations to the research community, society and politicians are necessary for solving both global and local challenges. Applying for international funding is central to this work, making it the duty of all Finnish universities and research institutions."

The text has been published in Helsingin Sanomat Vieraskynä column on 19.03.2018.