Sasu Tarkoma: In search of strategic insights and wise choices

We are living in a world of accelerating digitalisation, in which our conditions are changing fast due to the combined effects of global competition and increasing automation. The world faces unprecedented challenges: climate change and environmental pollution require fast and effective decisions on a global level and in our daily lives.

Emerging methods of artificial intelligence and the collection of data about various phenomena provide us with a better factual basis for making decisions and resolving major challenges. This requires that data and the knowledge generated from it are reliable and that knowledge is genuinely accepted in decision-making processes.

The world is currently polarised in many ways, including in the economic and technological spheres. The role of technology is increasing, and information flows are becoming more important in various social sectors. We are looking at the world through a digital filter. When looking at a website, have you ever wondered who is looking back at you? Popular online services know what hundreds of millions of people are doing at any given time, and use this information to tailor their content. Control over information flows enables them to shape opinions and change behaviour. Such control is exerted on the masses and individuals alike.

From a competitive perspective, it is important that Finland and the EU know how to use their resources and strengths in these times of change. A changing environment requires a wide range of skills as well as the continuous renewal of digital services. Self-sufficiency in both these dimensions is vital.
 
Competitiveness is based on a combination of many interrelated characteristics and abilities, including social infrastructures and wellbeing, extensive knowledge and skills, a solid base of funding for core research, support for applied research, and innovation processes. In Finland, the effectiveness and viability of the current innovation system has been actively discussed and should be thoroughly examined.

Recent cuts and funding decisions have meant that applied and innovation activities have had to be limited. The vacuum created by the winding-down of the Strategic Centres for Science, Technology and Innovation has not been filled by an instrument that would both support extensive national research cooperation and connect small and large companies to such activities. There is a discontinuity between basic research funded by the Academy of Finland and the development of applications.

In the current model, start-ups and small businesses often fail to meet funders’ R&D requirements. Large companies are usually better equipped to carry out research, but more onerous funding terms have been instituted to reduce the participation of such companies. Universities are burdened by the increasing share of self-funding required for projects. What we need are more flexible and diverse funding instruments.

Finland’s strengths in global competition include educational equality, ethics, openness, data protection and a leadership position in several areas of science and technology. Finland can strengthen its status as an EU leader in science and digitalisation, but this requires resources. Future decision-makers must now show their mettle by making decisions that will promote the competitiveness of university resources and innovation activities.

Sasu Tarkoma is a professor and department director at the University of Helsinki.

In the series Science Advocates, people describe the significance of research and research-based teaching for themselves. Read the other instalments on the Researchmatters website (scroll down).