Nordic governments ponder benefits of expert input

The Nordic countries are increasingly using academic experts as members of government-appointed committees mandated to advise on research into economic, societal and environmental issues.

The extent to which this influences research policy issues, and political and strategic government choices, may depend on whether the appointments are short term and ad hoc or part of a long-term strategy for governing research policy.

The rector of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Professor Harriet Wallberg-Henriksson, last week suggested in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter that Denmark could serve as a model for Swedish research.

“Long-term investments in research are the key for successful research,” she said. “Swedish research is suffering from splitting and short-term measures.”

Danish reforms involving university mergers, reorganisation of the ministry and a coupling of research and innovation policy are now producing results, Wallberg-Henriksson said.

An analysis by the bibliometric group at the Karolinska Institute in June showed that from 1995-2011, Denmark had more research articles ranked among the world’s top 5% than the UK and Sweden.

Last year University World News reported findings from the Nordic research coordination organisation Nordforsk that Danish researchers are cited 27% more frequently than the world average, compared with 13% for Sweden, 11% for Iceland, 8% for Norway and 5% for Finland.

Long-term strategy needed

Wallberg-Henriksson wrote in the context of ongoing work on the Swedish government’s research White Paper for the next four years, to be presented in early 2013: “In Denmark the government has appointed a permanent research-political council, independent of the political parties, universities, or research councils.

“The council is mandated to work out strategies for research and innovation for considerably longer periods than four years.”

In Scandinavia, Finland and Denmark have established long-term government-appointed research and innovation councils. Finland’s includes the participation of the prime minister, up to six other ministers and six high-level research experts.

In contrast, Sweden and Norway use a combination of short-term advisory boards for specific mandated research-related issues, and policy advice worked out in research councils.

Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry Trond Giske has appointed members of the Norwegian Technology Board (NTB) to advise on future opportunities in new technology, including IT, biotechnology and gene technology, starting on 16 August.

Established in 1999, the NTB is an independent body with a broad range of tasks related to assessment, counselling, dissemination and public debate on the opportunities and consequences of new technology. It has 14 members, most of them high-level academic experts.

The Swedish government last year appointed the Commission on the Future, headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt with party leaders in government and nine members representing different areas of Swedish society, supported by a secretariat of eight full-time staff.

Their mandate is to make recommendations on the future of Sweden with regard to immigration, integration and work, and “to minimise social exclusion, and strengthen the collective spirit that defines Sweden”.

The commission will also consider strategies for coping with the downsides of globalisation and ensure sustainable and green growth, linking these processes to research, higher education and innovation before the summer of 2013.

Academics and experts respond

Daniel Guhr, managing director of Illuminate Consulting Group, said most European countries operate with expert-driven science and technology research policy mechanisms. A key differentiator is how effective the interplay is between scientists and politicians.

“Politics, especially on wedge issues, can lead to bad science policies, and scientists can occasionally forget that societies have a legitimate expectation of affordable and effective research.

“Scandinavia has historically done well with regard to research and education performance based on a highly integrated but also occasionally fairly static policy model. Whether this approach will yield the best possible results going forward remains to be seen.”

Professor Anders Flodström, of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and a board member of the European Institute of Technology, said perceptions of the value of research, especially publicly financed research, would change.

Currently, value is determined by how much the research is seen as ground-breaking, as perceived by researchers and measured by publications and citations in peer-reviewed journals.

“In the future the value will be more connected to the impact of the research from societal and industrial and economic growth viewpoints,” he said. “Today jobs change much faster than education and if we are going to benefit from more innovation we need new people with the right skills."

While Sweden is rated number one in Europe on innovation, this is based on input indicators, such as research funding, not on output or impact indicators.

“I like the impact approach,” Flodström said. "It also gives a natural role to social sciences and humanities, because we all know that when it comes to many of mankind’s challenges, they are often in more need of social or human innovations than technology.”

Professor Matthias Kaiser, director of the centre for the study of sciences and the humanities at the University of Bergen, said preparation of science and technology policies through the active involvement of scientific and technological experts is common practice in all Nordic countries. It is also customary for draft policy papers to be subjected to broad public hearings.

Furthermore, all Nordic countries have a range of more or less independent advisory bodies that routinely offer advice. Despite this, final priorities are set through political processes.

Professor Sverker Sörlin, who was responsible for setting up the Stockholm Royal Institute of Technology’s environmental humanities laboratory, said there was a strong tradition of involving scientists in the strategic planning of publicly funded research in the Nordic countries, possibly more than in most European countries.

“It is also clear that politicians have always used their prerogative to take the final decision, and also to choose what issues to discuss with their advisors. There seems now to be a growing interest in a more long-term planning.”

Kaiser said it was important to note that the involvement of larger segments of the public is also widespread in Nordic countries, although perhaps more so in Denmark and Norway. Thus, science and technology are not restricted to high-level experts. The Norwegian Board of Technology in particular is required to seek input from the public.

“Ideally one would envisage a balanced dialogue between politics – that is decision-makers – experts and the public,” he said. “However, in my view the strong interest groups from diverse sectors in society still have a very dominating role, very much like in other European countries.”

Sörlin added it was crucial to insist on the democratic foundation of research and development policy, as with any other policy.

“However, this sphere of policy is special and needs to be long term and informed by strategic thinking about society's need for knowledge.

“For example, if the popularity of and confidence in research among the general population should rule, all research money would go to cancer and virtually nothing to the humanities and the social sciences. In that sense, we need expertise to deal with the issues.

“Precisely because of this, it is in fact good if long-term planning is carried out by a quite independent agency, which could then present its thinking to politicians. It would also spread responsibility for research and development to more parts of the government than the current situation when the department of education holds the strings to the research purse, which is the case in all Nordic countries, except perhaps Finland.”

Guhr doubted that participatory models accurately reflect current societies and their future needs. Most science and technology policy committees did not include young entrepreneurs or rising young scientists. As such, they run the inherent danger of representing yesterday's societal, research and innovation structures.

Said Guhr: “When setting policy, governance structures are often as important as policy design.”

Sörlin believes universities should be much more active as policy-makers. They have a tendency to lobby only for their own good.

“Ideally, universities should take on the role of saying interesting things about higher education, research and innovation and related issues, regardless of whether it is in their own special interest or not. That would enhance their respect in society, which has been waning in recent years.”