Celebrating ten years of Nordic “dugnad”
Close to 170 participants from the Nordic-wide research community convened in Oslo to take a look back on NordForsk’s childhood years, as well as to consider future challenges facing the organisation and Nordic research cooperation overall. The master of ceremonies for the conference was Quentin Cooper, renowned British research journalist and well-known presenter for BBC, among others.
NordForsk was launched in 2005 in keeping with the recommendation of Gustav Björkstrand, professor and then rector at Åbo Akademi University. At the request of the Nordic Council of Ministers, he drew up a white book on how the Nordic region could achieve its goal of becoming an internationally leading research and innovation region by 2010. “Looking back, I am astonished that I took on such a challenging task,” he admitted. “It was a highly labour-intensive period.”
“I asked myself, ‘what would it be like if the Nordic countries take the challenge and agree to invest heavily together?’” Gustav Björkstrand.
Ten years later, Dr Björkstrand noted, the Nordic region is still not a global leader. Nonetheless, he sees NordForsk’s development as impressive. “Standing together and using resources in an effective way is important for the Nordic countries to compete internationally.”
Deputy Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Rudolph Strohmeier, concurred, describing the Nordic research and innovation area as “a highly successful mini European research area.”
Friendships that last a lifetime
“Friendship created during researcher childhood will last throughout scientific life,” said Thomas Wilhelmsson, chancellor at the University of Helsinki. Jason D. Whittington, Scientific Director at the Nordic Centre of Excellence NorMER spoke of the great enthusiasm about the Nordic network that has developed among the participants, even though none of the centre’s researchers had experience cooperating at the Nordic level before, “A new generation of researchers now believes that this is how science is done – the added value will come over the next decades, as they continue with their careers.”
Nordic cooperation – stepping stone or intrinsically valuable on its own?
Proximity, shared values and trust were mentioned as some of the many reasons to cooperate at the Nordic level. “Size matters, sometimes,” stated Ilona Riipinen, associate professor at Stockholm University. She has taken part in three different Nordic Centres of Excellence and highlights the larger market, wider network and similar rules in Nordic countries as tools enabling researchers to navigate in an international context.
Our similarities also place us in a particularly good position for compiling large amounts of data from comparable environments, stated Camilla Stoltenberg, Director-General at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. She sees enormous potential in the Nordic countries in the area of cohort, registry and biobank research: “We need very large numbers. Even combined, the Nordic registries are relatively small making for such studies, but there are no competitive numbers elsewhere, so we are competitive in this respect,” she said, citing examples involving drug safety and pandemic preparedness. “We should make Nordic cooperation our first choice,” Dr Stoltenberg emphasised.
Thematic focus for the future
Many of the conference speakers mentioned the need to increase collaboration at the university level. Thomas Wilhelmsson pointed out that seven Nordic universities ranked among the top 100 in the 2015 Shanghai Ranking. He believes the time has come to think along new lines regarding how to distribute tasks in the educational field.
“Together, the Nordic region is the best university area in the world” Thomas Wilhelmsson.
State Secretary Bjørn Haugstad from the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research noted as an example the success of the “Nordic Five Tech”, in which five leading Nordic universities of science and technology cooperate to offer joint international master’s programmes and courses, among other things.
Several of the conference participants pointed to the refugee situation in Europe as a topic that should be given priority in future Nordic research cooperation. Gustav Björkstrand explained that if climate change continues to escalate, the ensuing rise in migration will place increasingly greater pressure on the welfare states and value frameworks of the European countries.
“The challenge of mass migration comes on faster than expected,” continued Guðrún Pétursdóttir, Director for the Institute for Sustainability Studies at the University of Iceland. “This is only the beginning and we are totally unprepared.”