Public debate on research policy in the Nordic countries

Public debate on research policy in the Nordic countries – issues and trends

Public debate on research policy issues has been a neglected domain in studies of research and research policy. The comparative study of the public debate on research policy in the five Nordic countries, now published by NIFU, is thus a study which may lay claim to some novelty. It may be seen as an exploration of the development of the “knowledge society” and “knowledge economy”.

A key part of policy discourse on the knowledge society and economy is the development and active use of a range of indicators and rankings to measure and monitor how individual countries and regions make progress in this process of structural change. From these rankings a map has emerged of “leading” and “lagging” nations and regions. While such rankings often vary as a function of differences between methodologies and aggregation of indicators, they invariably put some or all of the Nordic countries in top positions. Within EU rankings the Nordic member countries in general, and Finland and Sweden in particular, are seen to pave the way which the EU as a whole should follow and, specifically, to provide evidence that the target to increase R&D investment to 3 percent of GDP is possible and viable. There is, as such, a “look to the Nordic countries” element in much global and European debate on policies for the “knowledge economy” in general and for R&D in particular. Consequently a study of the public debate on research policy issues in the Nordic countries is an exploration of how and to what extent the allegedly increasing importance of research is reflected in public awareness and in characteristics of public debate on research policy issues. One could expect that the widening of debates on research policy in these countries may involve broader constituencies than immediate stakeholders in research, industry and policymaking.

As advanced welfare states, the Nordic countries are also committed to values of equality and social security, key references in policy debates about knowledge societies and economies in terms of providing evidence that the “European social model” which combines knowledge-based growth and “social cohesion” is possible and viable. Is there evidence of public awareness that fundamental values may be at stake in the “knowledge society/economy” developments and issues? To what extent and how does awareness about values in particular surface in the public debate on research policy issues?

The Nordic study address such issues through a combined quantitative and qualitative study of articles on research policy published in 3–5 newspapers in each of the Nordic countries during the 10-year period 1998 to 2007. This was a period during which a large number of initiatives were launched and debated in all the Nordic countries as indicated by an overview provided in the report of key policy developments and events.

The main findings of the study are as follows:

  • Increase in public debate.
    We see an overall pattern where public debate on research policy increased during the ten year period covered.
  • Researchers are the dominant actor group.
    Researchers and research institutions combined are the dominant group of authors in all countries except Iceland, where the dominant group is journalists.
  • Politicians are often referred to in the debate.
    While the politician/ministry group has a relatively minor role as author, the minister/ministry of research and other ministries taken together are by far the largest referred actor groups in all countries except Finland. In Sweden, state initiated committees/inquiries are relatively frequently referred to, compared to the other Nordic countries.
  • Researchers and politicians disagree.
    Disagreements among researchers and politicians were by far the most common conflict in all the Nordic countries. Disagreements among researchers occurred most frequently in Finland and Iceland, while this was rarely the case in Denmark.
  • Politicians’ and business roles vary strongly.
    In Denmark, politicians and representatives of the ministries are more active than in any other country while their relative presence in Finland is very low. This reflects the different characteristics of the political process in the two countries. There is also a large variation in the participation in the debate of actors from business/industry, which in Denmark plays a more prominent role than their counterparts in other Nordic countries. Sweden and Denmark display a higher degree of policy initiation (through laws, bills, executive orders or appropriations of financial resources) compared to other Nordic countries.
  • Different topics prevail in the various countries.
    While economic/resource topics, organisational topics and output-related issues are the dominant topic groups in all countries, the relative prevalence of topics groups differs between the countries. In debates in Denmark, issues of organisation and management were most common, output-related issues were the most frequently debated in Finland, while debates in Iceland, Norway and Sweden were predominantly on financial and resource issues. The analysis of the topics is to a large extent qualitative, highlighting a number of national specificities.
  • Basic research a key concern.
    For all countries except Finland, debates were about basic research in the cases where references to types of research could be detected. In Finland the main focus was on “research and development”. Only Danish debates referred to any significant extent to “strategic research”.
  • Extremely strong national bias in research policy debates in all countries.
    A main finding of the study is that in all the Nordic countries the research policy debate had an almost exclusively national focus. References to the Nordic countries or other regions were rare. References to non-Nordic EU countries were more frequent in Finnish debate articles than in articles in other Nordic countries. This picture is also sustained by our finding that relatively few articles made any reference to issues of international research cooperation. As a large part of the debate in several countries was concerned with inadequate resource levels, references to the Barcelona target were frequently made as part of the argument. In this way the EU dimension did figure in the national public debate as pressure on national governments to increase (public) funding of research. To a certain extent public debate may be seen to have acted as an “ally” to the European Union wanting to exert pressure on national policymakers to increase research funding.

See the full report: 

Public Debate on Research Policy in the Nordic Countries. A Comparative Analysis of Actors and Issues (1998 – 2007)
Egil Kallerud, Thorvald Finnbjørnsson, Lars Geschwind, Marja Häyrinen-Alestalo, Inge Ramberg, Karen Siune & Terhi Tuominen: NIFU Report 11/2011.

Report on the Danish Case:

Who is setting the agenda for Danish Research Policy? Public debate about research policy in selected Danish newspapers from 1998 – 2007
Karen Siune: The Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, Aarhus University, 2011.