Tag Archives: collaboration

Dark clouds over Turkish and UK Academia

Visitors to Istanbul often first go to see the eighth wonder of the world, Hagia Sophia. This is also what my research group did – actually several times – in connection with joint research meetings with our Turkish partners. Hagia Sophia has a history of being a Byzantine church for over 900 years, then it was used as an Ottoman mosque for over 480 years, and in 1935 it was converted to a secular museum. For over 10 years, we have worked together with our Turkish partners to find secular solutions for the production of renewable energy carriers. During these years, we have learned to appreciate the excellent research quality and true commitment of our Turkish friends. The research exchanges can be counted in years.

The news from Turkey this summer after the failed coup trial have been very confusing and discouraging: the attacks on academic freedom and putting the education sector under a tight control. This has been demonstrated by sacking large numbers of Turkish university staff, academics from abroad have been told to return home, and bans on international travel have been set. It is very important that the European University Association, followed promptly by Universities Finland UNIFI among other organisations, have called on European universities and scholars to speak against these crude developments.

The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union has been another headline in this summer’s world news. Brexit is going to have widespread consequences – and not least for European science. Seven UK academies in their open letter to the new UK administration expressed their concern that Brexit is putting UK science at a serious risk. This warning is warranted already from the funding perspective alone. A Royal Society publication from 2015 reports that the UK contributed to the EU 7th Framework Programme by 5.4 billion euros, whilst it received 8.8 billion euros. As first aid to UK scientists, the UK government announced this weekend that Horizon research funding granted before leaving the EU will be guaranteed.

UK universities are dominating the top of the best universities in Europe as measured by various ranking systems. Times Higher Education, for example, lists the best 200 European universities, and UK universities take four out of five top positions and they also represent one quarter of the overall list. These figures alone show that the contribution of UK universities to European science and innovation must be very significant. Therefore, the risk caused by Brexit is not limited to UK science but that of the European Union – and we Finns are not outside the risk zone. Over the years, Finnish university scientists have established mutually fruitful co-operation with UK universities – typically with the help of EU funded projects.

In addition to scientific contributions, the UK’s involvement in the development of the EU’s science policy has been instrumental. At present, EU funding decisions are based on scientific criteria. This policy has been strongly influenced by the UK together with several other countries including Finland. How will this be after Brexit? Possible science policy changes after the UK’s withdrawal could also be detrimental to our opportunities and successes in sustaining future funding.

Going back to Istanbul. We have team photos from Hagia Sophia by the wishing column with a bronze-covered hole in the wall. The advice given by our friends was to put a thumb in the hole, rotate the thumb a complete 360-degree tour inside the hole and at the same time, make a wish. According to the legend, there is a tendency for the wish to come true. Applying this method is not going to be enough for clearing the present challenges around academic life in Turkey. More secular actions are needed. In addition to political statements and sympathies, practical solutions by universities and especially at research team level are needed. First, securing our Turkish visitors the continuums of conducting research in our laboratories and groups.  It is important to find ways of pursuing active research relations over the difficult times.

As for cooperation with UK partners, our researchers should take every effort to maintain and further strengthen research ties. And for politicians, actions towards sustaining the UK’s contributions to the EU’s competitiveness through science and innovation just makes sense.

Jaakko_Puhakka_TTY_100x130_3Jaakko Puhakka
Academic rector

 

 

 

 

Excellence – something to strive for

In Finland, we tend to see excellence in our activities. A good example is our education system, the best in the world in our minds. In many cases, although certainly not in all, this is also true in the light of international comparisons. In industry, we respect innovation and manufacturing of high-quality products, instead of bulk products that make financial profit only when sold in high quantities. Finnish design is a trademark of high quality, too.

In universities, we must also strive for excellence, both in education and research. Carrying out our academic activities at a level comparable to the highest international standards is also a way to financial success.  In the UEF strategy, the development of learning environments and international-level research areas is also pointing in the right direction. The funding system of universities in Finland relies on indicators that measure, directly or indirectly, the quality of our actions.  Success in these indicators determines our future success, not only financially but also in terms of our international reputation. Indeed, Academy of Finland professors, FiDiPro professors, ERC grants and centres of excellence (CoEs) in UEF are indicators of excellence in research. They are the flagships that can make the university famous for research.

A centre of excellence (CoE) is a team, a shared facility or an entity that provides leadership, best practices, research, support and/or training for a focus area (Wikipedia).  The Academy of Finland’s CoEs represent the very cutting edge of science in their fields, developing creative research environments and training new talented researchers for the Finnish research system and Finnish business and industry (http://www.aka.fi/en/research-and-science-policy/centres-of-excellence/). The call for letters of intent for the new CoE programme will open in April 2016. According to the Academy of Finland, the new CoE programme enables the renewal of science, with improved support to utilise research findings in society. The CoE programme 2018-2025 is expected to include new research groups, new research themes and new openings embracing a high gain-high risk approach. What does this mean? Does this offer new possibilities for UEF researchers? We will learn more during this spring. Let’s actively collect all the information available to find out what we can expect from this round and prepare ourselves for tough competition.

Indeed, it is time to establish consortiums that will be competitive in the coming application round.  Most importantly, competitive consortiums must include not only a high quality director, research groups and members, but also fresh research ideas with potential for new scientific openings and breakthroughs. Obviously, UEF researchers have to collaborate with top scientists in other national and international research organisations. Even the weakest partner in a consortium must be strong enough. Typically, only the maximum grades in the review process are good enough for success. Also typically, the director of a CoE is a prominent, experienced researcher of the highest international level. It is interesting to see if younger candidates will be considered more seriously as directors for the next long programme term (2018-2025). A young director cannot have hundreds of scientific papers, as is characteristic of directors of the present CoE programmes.  Let’s hope that also young talents have chances for success.

Jukka JurvelinJukka Jurvelin
dean, Faculty of Science and Forestry