Conference spotlights research funding organizations’ changing role

Opening of the conference. Speech by Marc Schiltz, President of Science Europe. Photo credit: Estonian Research Council
Opening of the conference. Speech by Marc Schiltz, President of Science Europe. Photo credit: Estonian Research Council

The Estonian Research Council hosted a conference focused on the role of research funding organizations in a shifting world on June 9 in Tartu, Estonia. The event was held to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the founding of the council, which supports research and innovation in Estonia, and represents the country’s positions in international networks and organizations.

The event hosted more than 80 participants from nine countries, including Iceland, Latvia, Finland, Norway, France, Poland, Armenia, Luxembourg, as well as a representative from the European Commission.

It was divided into three sessions. The first discussed the impact of research funding organizations on science societal processes. The second covered the role of research funding organizations in promoting international cooperation for supporting national goals. And the third session in the conference focused on guaranteeing the sustainability of scientific systems by increasing funding and making it more attractive to pursue a career in science.

Recurring themes during the conference varied. One was the role of funding agencies in society, which was touched upon by Marc Schiltz, president of Science Europe and CEO of the Luxembourg National Research Fund. Brussels-based Science Europe represents major public organizations that fund or perform research.

In his talk, Schiltz described the balancing act that funding agencies must play between government, society, and the research community. Funding agencies must have “sufficient autonomy and independence from all three” to successfully operate, said Schiltz, underscoring the importance of trust and transparency. Governments should decide on strategy, he said, but ultimately funding agencies should have the authority to allocate grants and to run programs.

The research community must be able to see that funds are allocated in a fair way, he added, calling this “crucial” for the research community to trust its funding agencies. Funding agencies also have a responsibility to society. Here again agencies have to be transparent about how funding is awarded and how money flows into the best research projects, Schiltz remarked.

During the conference, former Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid also discussed research funding from an Estonian perspective. She noted that Estonian researchers rely on external sources of funding, notably from the EU, to support their work. While that means that “much better science can be generated here than if we supported science only from the Estonian GDP,” it also leaves the research community exposed to uncertainties about future funding.

Kaljulaid said that the private sector, including the financial sector, could do more to support research and innovation in the country. She said there had been a “certain lack of courage” to invest in intangibles in Estonia, compared to in Scandinavia, even though the banks that operate in Estonia and in Scandinavia are largely the same. “Scandinavian banks are able to support creativity-based economies in Scandinavia, yet I hear all the time stories of how banks are in the industrial age,” said Kaljulaid. “If you look how little they have invested in Estonia’s unicorns, this must be true.”

Kaljulaid said it was imperative for the private sector to support research. In this way, Estonian science can diversify its sources of financing. She floated the idea of turning more to private R&D funds, or partnering with wealthy countries that invest in R&D, such as the Gulf states.

From another corner of Northern Europe, Ágúst Hjörtur Ingþórsson, general director of Rannis, the Icelandic Centre for Research, stressed that small countries need such international cooperation to fund research and innovation.

Ingþórsson said that the best deal Iceland struck in recent decades was when it joined the European Economic Area in 1994, a decision he said had allowed for “unheard prosperity for the past 30 years.” He said that international cooperation was the foundation upon which the country had been able to achieve its national goals. “We cannot solve them on our own,” he said.

While international cooperation, and seeking multiple sources of funding might be ways for small countries to continuously and reliably support science, they are facing additional challenges beyond a finance gap, namely a generation gap. Particularly in Northern European countries, young researchers often see positions occupied by those deep in middle age, which might discourage them from staying in science, or encouraging them to look elsewhere for positions.

Päivi Tikka, director of the Division of Strategic Research at the Academy of Finland acknowledges as much during a discussion, when she said that her country is “nowadays losing young talents to other countries.” Tikka said that more funding should be directed to universities to support younger researchers. She added that “not everyone who gets a PhD needs to stay in academia,” meaning that those who completed their doctorates could also continue their research in the private sector.

Lauma Muižniece, director of Latvian Council of Science, agreed with Tikka, and noted that there are opportunities for researchers in deep tech startups. She also acknowledged that age was an issue, as Latvia’s population is aging like other European populations. “We run the risk of generation gap across Europe especially if there are no opportunities for a middle age career path,” she said.

Remarking on the issue, Tiit Tammaru, deputy head of the evaluation committee of the Estonian Research Council, said that younger researchers also needed more encouragement with their projects. “Strategic topics are often defined by people who are not at the beginning of their careers,” said Tammaru. “We have to consider the research interests of young people and what they think is important to study.”

Anu Noorma, director general of the Estonian Research Council, closed the conference by stressing the need for interdisciplinary cooperation. Research funders cannot fund everything, she said, and industry, policy makers, and citizens needed to work together to improve investments into research and innovation. “The public sector can support research and innovation that banks and others are not willing to support,” Noorma added.

Noorma concluded by pointing out that research is under pressure around the world, be it by security challenges, or climate change, or economic crises. Communication, she said, was key, in terms of relaying the importance of research to society, as well as engaging older and younger generations in dialogue. “The main thing is to build trust between people, systems, countries, politics, and communities,” said Noorma. “In the end we have just one planet.”

Written by: Justin Petrone

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council. 

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