Nordic countries must emulate EU R&D policy to remain competitive, report says

October 18, 2006

Brussels, 17 October 2006


Globalisation, technological advances and increasing competition from emerging economies are putting all countries in Europe under pressure to produce more knowledge, convert it into innovation, and generally up their competitiveness.

These new circumstances are not just only causing anxiety for Europe's weaker players, already struggling to compete with their neighbours, but also for the continent's more competitive nations. The Nordic countries, although top of almost every research and development (R&D) and innovation table, are not immune to these new challenges, and are therefore examining what they can do to ensure that they stay at the top.

'Nordic countries are generally heavy investors in research, compared with their population [size], but are so small in global terms that they need constantly to ensure that their effectiveness counterbalances their size,' states the new report, 'Building Nordic strength through more open R&D funding', commissioned by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The report focuses on more cooperation at Nordic level as a solution to maintaining competitiveness, and asks the questions: 'what happens if we open the internal Nordic borders for research funding?' and 'what happens if we don't?' Having concluded that the countries should open up their funding programmes to one another, the report goes on to make proposals on how this could be achieved, starting with the strengthening of potential coordinating institutions.

The report suggests that the EU is ahead of the Nordic countries in meeting new global challenges, and admires the way in which the EU has 'set ambitious targets, reshaped the way it makes policy, redefined its role in relation to research and innovation policy-making at the Member State level and restructured its funding instruments'. In contrast, the Nordic countries have responded passively, claims the report. '[The] arithmetic says that individual countries count for less than before; that this is especially important for small countries such as the Nordic ones and that creating and accessing critical mass in research will in many fields be an essential precondition for playing a meaningful, international role,' reads the paper.

The answer, according to the report, is a 'joined up research and innovation policy', mirroring what the authors have seen in the EU. ERA-NETs and Technology Platforms could be emulated, as could the EU's attitude towards the distribution of resources, argues the report. The authors claim that, having acknowledged the importance of working together, Member States are moving away from an insistence on juste retour within funding programmes. The authors state: 'Increasingly the 'Matthew principle' (that the rich get richer and the poor lose what little they have) will apply in EU cooperation. The Nordic nations ignore this change at their peril.'

The Nordic Research and Innovation Area (NORIA) could be strengthened by the selective, mutual opening of national R&D programmes, the report advises. 'In principle, the Nordic nations could decide to open their R&D funding programmes to each other simply by accepting applications for funding from people in all the Nordic countries. No one regards this as a serious option,' it continues. Instead, three 'more realistic' options are put forward:
- joint needs analysis and planning among funders and other stakeholders in the region;
- parallel but separate calls for proposals;
- joint calls for proposals financed from a 'virtual common pot', so that funders fund their own nationals only. These could eventually become genuine common pots with no juste retour.

Looking to the EU's ERA-NETs for inspiration, the report notes that while the Nordic countries do have different laws, administrative practice and timings for calls, such obstacles could be overcome. 'Building experience and routines for tackling these questions will create an advantage for the Nordic region compared with other intra-EU cooperations, where the geography is more ad hoc and partnerships are different in every case,' it adds.

An additional obstacle, and one which must be tackled before stakeholders can begin to work on the practicalities of closer cooperation, is the institutional pillars of the Nordic region.

NordForsk and NICe are the institutions currently responsible for implementing research and innovation policies in the region. However, the two institutions are housed at different ministries, their links to the grass roots at national level are limited, and 'their links to each other seem largely confined to sharing office space', according to the report. Good research governance practice is therefore lacking, barring the development of holistic research and innovation policies.

To tackle this weakness, the report proposes periodic meetings, the creation of a joint secretariat, and funding bottom-up planning initiatives. The authors also suggest that the Nordic Council of Ministers initiates a pilot programme to encourage bottom-up initiatives across the whole research and innovation spectrum.

'The principle of research funding across Nordic borders using a common pot and without juste retour is already established. Researchers are voting with their feet to support it. This scheme will extend that principle and allow the research and innovation communities themselves to identify where Nordic strength is to be found, where cooperation and co-funding makes sense at the Nordic level,' states the report.

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