Collaboration between researchers and businesses is a good way to make research knowledge readily available to society. Thus says Lauri Oksanen, Board Chair of the Finnish Research Impact Foundation. By working together to tackle interesting questions, researchers and the business community can generate new insights and share tacit knowledge.
“This provides a powerful means of applying research results for the benefit of society,” he states.
Oksanen praises the government programme for emphasising collaboration between researchers and businesses in R&D funding. He notes that such collaboration was one of Finland’s strengths in the early 2000s, but has since deteriorated as a result of financial cuts and political decisions.
Now, efforts are being taken to bridge the gap between basic research and commercialisation. For example, Business Finland and the Research Council of Finland have launched research-based funding with relevance to companies. Oksanen believes Finland should spread the word globally about the turn in its RDI funding.
“We should stress that we’re investing in this and that Finland is a good country for research.”
Finland must also ensure that a sufficient number of talented individuals pursue doctoral education. Oksanen believes that a key priority for the new Finnish government is to continue on the path outlined by the Parliamentary Working Group on Research, Development and Innovation.
“Whatever we do, we should always be looking at least five years ahead,” he says.
Businesses need humanities scholars too
The Finnish government established the Finnish Research Impact Foundation in 2019. The foundation promotes collaboration between researchers and the business community by means such as the annual provision of universities and research institutes with two million euros of Tandem Industry Academia funding. To date, 46 projects have received Tandem funding, including 13 projects in which the University of Helsinki was the applicant. In addition, the foundation conducts its own research and writes reports.
“We’re not just a funder. We also take other measures to support the enhancement of skills, competitiveness and collaboration.”
Although the foundation offers funding to applicants from all disciplines, Oksanen says that the bulk of applicants represent technology and medicine. The foundation is now looking to encourage humanities scholars and businesses to join forces:
“We’d like to see more such applications, as we believe the social demand is high.”
Businesses and researchers must learn to speak the same language
Another problem identified by Oksanen is the comparatively small number of funding applications involving small and medium-sized companies as partners. A recent report by the foundation demonstrates that SMEs are willing to collaborate, but do not have the resources required. The lack of a common language also presents a significant barrier. Companies are unable to find the skills they need at universities.
“This is clearly about a mismatch due to the two communities being so separate.”
He encourages potential partners to take their time setting up collaboration. Rather than immediately submitting a joint project application, they can first discuss the collaboration for up to a few years. Researchers should consider their own needs and expectations when contacting businesses. They can offer potential partners a research question rather than a patented product, for instance.
“Many companies are interested in acquiring new ideas and information, even if they don’t lead to the development of a new product.”
More research-driven collaboration funding
The assessment of research impact is another frequently discussed topic. Oksanen points out that the commercialisation of results in fields such as health science may take over 10 years, and it is not easy even for companies to trace the origins of each product.
“This makes it extremely difficult to assess the impact of an individual study.”
The Finnish Research Impact Foundation is addressing the problem by examining its projects and surveying the factors that have led to successful collaboration. The foundation will publish its report in early 2024.
Pointing to the abundant evidence for the benefits of collaboration between the private and public sectors in general, Oksanen advocates for launching more research-based funding that includes collaboration among the criteria.
“We think it should be increasingly incorporated into funding instruments.”