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  • Howard Jacobs

    Big-bang for big bucks

    The Academy of Finland and other agencies which support science and technology in Finland rightly place great emphasis on internationalization. What does this mean, why is it crucial, and are current policies sufficient to promote it?

    There is general agreement that we can only achieve the level of excellence and impact in discovery that guarantees future prosperity, if our scientists are fully engaged with the top echelon of expertise worldwide. In a global marketplace, a small country with few natural resources and high costs imposed by geography can only stay ahead by promoting and selling its expertise. Finland needs to punch above its weight, by creating a climate that not only promotes local talent, but sucks in the most creative thinkers from other countries, and gives them the tools to achieve great things here. Politicians in Finland are well used to articulating this concept. The question is, how effective are they (or us) when it comes to putting it into practice?

    Internationalization is partly nurtured simply by ’networking’. Scientists based in Finland can tap into global expertise if they are part of regional (Nordic, European) or intercontinental research consortia that share analytical tools, data and ideas, and apply collective thinking to major questions.

    Nationally we make reasonably good use of programmes and funding instruments that facilitate networking. Reciprocal training visits and collaborations are strongly encouraged, and are considered a badge of excellence by funding bodies. We also succeed tolerably well in accessing instruments that support inward and outward mobility, such as the EU’s Marie Curie Fellowships scheme, or the ERC starting grants.

    But how good are we at recruiting the best foreign scientists to Finland and keeping them here?

    To be fully effective, recruitment must operate at different levels, from undergraduate through to institute director. We face several handicaps in drawing in the most brilliant young students from abroad. The language issue remains a major problem. Another is the fact that our degree programmes, hitherto free to all, are still offered very cheaply. Paradoxically, this deters the best applicants, creating a perception that we provide a mediocre product for mediocre students, at a derisory price.

    Higher up the ladder, we still provide almost no practical support for foreign experts to relocate. There is a bureaucratic minefield to negotiate, with an unwelcoming tax environment, salaries way below international levels considering the high cost of living and only tentative steps towards a tenure-track model. Those with spouses and families are often deterred even before applying for a position. The FiDiPro scheme looks good on paper, but even here, the financial arrangements are unattractive to anyone coming from the senior levels of academia in USA or Japan. And most academics in Finland still waste a lot of time applying for rather modest short-term support.

    Overall, these drawbacks outweigh all the positives about Finland: the safe environment, high quality public healthcare and basic education, and serene landscapes.

    Nudging things in the right direction will have little impact in redressing the balance, especially since many countries are already following this course. Instead we need a ‘big bang’ approach, offering substantially more than any of them. Which university, foundation or political party is going to be bold enough to propose this and actually carry it out?

    Howard Jacobs
    Academy Professor,
    The professor of the year 2009, selected by the finnish union of university professors (fuup)

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