Balkans ‘could learn’ from Nordic research collaboration

The threat of invasion after World War II eventually brought the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden, closer together through the Nordic Council of Ministers. Now the region has the biggest air force in Europe and a GDP larger than Russia, according to Bertel Haarder, former Danish minister and member of the council, who was speaking at EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF 2014) on 23 June.

The political cooperation eventually yielded gains for research, too, with the establishment in 2005 of NordForsk – an organisation under the Nordic Council that provides funding for Nordic research cooperation as well as advice and input on Nordic research policy.

NordForsk aims to ease effective research and innovation cooperation among the Nordic countries, promote excellence in research and contribute to the implementation of the Nordic Research and Innovation Area (NORIA) – modelled on the European Research Area. It runs on a basic funding of some 14 million Euros a year, and funds research that involves scientists from at least three countries.

Some of the first evaluations of NordForsk research programmes, presented at ESOF2014, show that they have helped increase mobility of scientists and boosted the visibility of Nordic researchers abroad, as well as help make them more attractive partners for the European Union’s framework programme grants.

Nordic-style research collaboration – could it work in the Balkans?

Could this successful model of regional cooperation in science work in the Balkans, I asked the Nordic experts at the ESOF2014 session on “Nordic research collaboration – what is it and how does it work?

“I think it can be done everywhere,” said Gunnel Gustaffson, director of NordForsk.

Peter Stern, a senior consultant at Technopolis Group, who authored the review of two of NordForsk’s programmes said that in order to make it work, “You have to put in a lot resources, in terms of funding, building up a number of local or regional or national groups, that will eventually be able to take part.”

He says these groups were then more successful in attracting funding on the European level, too, thanks to regional-level funding and networking enabled by NordForsk.

“They became much more competitive on a European level when they were looking for framework programme money. The main reason is they became even more successful from the scientific point of view, they produced more interesting research, they published more extensively, they became larger names within their research fields.”

Marja Makarow, vice president for research of the Academy of Finland and the new chair of the NordForsk board, says Nordic countries can work together on research to add value and be more competitive in Europe and globally.

“We see each other as an assembly to be much stronger than individually, the five Nordic countries, and we really can serve as a sort of a stepping stone from the national level via the Nordic level to European level, to the global level.”

The “stepping stone” allows the researchers from the region to be better at competing for EU funds, she said.

“If you think of a small country, for instance Finland, we are 5.4 million population, and then, you know – there’s Europe. So it’s easier to start with a little bit smaller community, to speak with peers who have very similar funding systems, similar values, and then start collaborations to sort of address the bigger community of Europe – this is not needed in every case, but in many cases it is helpful.”

It is evident that the Nordic step is needed, she says, thanks to similar history, societal values and structures, development level, and similar research funding mechanisms and ambitions.

“We can really contribute to the development and to the capitalisation of fundamental research in Europe, and globally, by sticking together: one plus one is more than two in the context of the Nordic countries.”

Can the Balkans learn from Nordic cooperation?

Makarow agreed with Gustaffson that the Nordic model could be helpful in other regions, such as the Balkans.

“Those regions, where you have neighbouring countries which are not terribly different in size, in GDP, in history; where you have a sort of a common denominator, as we have in the five Nordic countries, it would be very intelligent to start to see whether those countries … would benefit from working together.”

“It’s up to them to see the benefits of neighbourhood, similarity, and to use these aggregative efforts as a stepping stone into larger international efforts.”

Elke Dall, from Vienna’s Centre for Social Innovation, who is closely involved with Western Balkan research policy, says that NordForsk “has many facets that are of merit”.

She expects that the WISE facility — Western Balkans Innovation Strategy Exercise Facility — to be established in Split as part of the Regional Strategy for Research and Development for Innovation for the Western Balkans, “could in some form be created to fulfill at least some of the functions: coordinate activities and investments up to joint funding and act as a ‘think tank’”.

But, she adds, “given the problems of funding in the region … it needs to be seen”.

“It would be wonderful if the NordForsk people could be motivated to send a person for a workshop to transfer some lessons learnt,” she concludes.

Collaborating with the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania)

“NordForsk has a history of collaborating with the Baltic countries, so that has been on the agenda,” Makarow said. “In all of our minds there is this knowledge that we are also neighbouring the Baltic countries, and the Baltic countries are making tiger’s leap into the modernisation of the funding systems in their countries.”

“For example, Estonia used to have Soviet-style academy of sciences running institutes and earmarking money from the government budget without any competition – they have changed into a competitive research council model and the others are following, so I think these are very valid companions.”

But much bigger involvement of the Baltic countries in NordForsk is unlikely, because while they are considered to be “partners” they are not part of the Nordic council of ministers.

Mićo Tatalović

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