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Developing Finland's Scientific Workforce

Anneli Pauli

Europe needs more researchers in order to renew its knowledge base. In our rapidly changing societies, education, research, new innovations, and training new generations of researchers are key objectives of many governments. According to the Lisbon Declaration of 2000, European Union member states aim to increase average research spending in Europe to 3% of gross domestic product by 2010. This effort, as well as the Barcelona Summit of 2002, closely links economic growth with human resources.

During the last few years Finland has had the highest proportion of researchers in the labour force in all of Europe. In the 1990s, the number of researchers rose by more than 50% as a direct result of the science policy of the Finnish government. Many have acknowledged the positive outcome of the reforms carried out in researcher training in the past few years. Yet these successes bring new challenges; Finnish science policymakers now face challenges in ensuring the continuity of the career development of researchers.

The number of Ph.D. degrees has increased in all fields of study. In absolute terms, the three largest fields are medicine, natural sciences, and engineering sciences, which together accounted for some 60% of all Ph.D. degrees awarded in the past 12 years. There is hardly any unemployment in these fields.

This increase in the number of degrees ties in with the various science policy and university reforms carried out in the 1990s consistent with the national goal to become a genuinely knowledge-based society. Launching the doctoral training programmes--see below--was one of the key instruments in achieving this target.

Over the past 3 years the number of doctoral degrees awarded has flattened off. Furthermore, although both the absolute number of R&D staff and Ph.D. degrees did increase in 1990s, the proportion of R&D staff with Ph.D.s remained fairly steady, at 10.5% in 2001.

Ph.D.s awarded in Finland, 1989-2002
Source: Kota Database, Academy of Finland

More Structured Researcher Training Through Doctoral Programmes
Innovative, high-quality research and training environments are essential to well-functioning researcher training. The most significant structural change in researcher training in Finland took place in 1995, when the Ministry of Education introduced the first 4-year doctoral training programmes. The new system aimed to tackle a number of problems with the existing postgraduate training system. For example, the average age of new Ph.D.s was very high--close to 40--because of inadequate supervision and the scarcity of postgraduate training opportunities.

Increasing the number of Ph.D.s was not the primary goal. The new system also had a political and societal mission. When it was launched Finland had just suffered a very deep economic recession. The government made a substantial investment in human capital, which in turn gave other players, such as businesses, a strong incentive to participate in developing the innovation system.

Although the decision to set up more structured doctoral training was top-down, there was--and still is--no designated model for these programmes. Some of the current 114 programmes are discipline-oriented, some are problem-oriented, some are networks between several universities, and some function within a single university. There is no physical place for a joint programme; each programme is a virtual network with a director, usually a professor, from the host university. Although there are active doctoral programmes in all fields of study, the priority areas are fields crucial to knowledge-intensive business, information technology, and biotechnology.

Students in doctoral programmes are selected on a competitive basis. Full (though modest) funding enables Ph.D. students to concentrate full-time on their theses. A clear indication of the great interest in doctoral training is that the number of applicants greatly exceeds the number of positions available: On average the ratio is 5 to 1; in technical fields it is 4 to 1. So far there is no shortage of young people in Finland interested in research. In order to ensure that this favourable trend continues in the future, science policy decision-makers must keep working to maintain researcher training as an attractive option for young people. And this means strong career opportunities.

Placement of and Demand for Ph.D.s
The unemployment rate in Finland persists at about 10%. However, people with a Ph.D. degree have had no difficulties finding employment, their unemployment rate being 1.5% in 2000. Of course, differences exist between various fields of study. People with a Ph.D. in engineering, medicine, or the natural sciences have been most successful in finding employment. These are also the fields that have the highest number of Ph.D.s.

Most Ph.D.s have found employment that is compatible with their qualifications. Long-term follow-up data indicate that Ph.D.s are concentrated in the public rather than the private sector. At a rough estimate, 80% of Ph.D.s work in the employ of central or local government, Furthermore, over 70% of Ph.D.s in central government work in universities.

With the single exception of medicine, the academic career path is still today the most common one for Ph.D.s. However, chances of getting a permanent position in a university or research institute are limited. At universities, the future need for Ph.D.s will be created on the one hand by the exit of the baby-boom generation from the labour market; on the other hand it will depend on the future development of public and private research funding.

An academic career is by no means the only type of research career, and mobility from academia to industry should be encouraged more strongly. At the moment in the business enterprise sector, only 3% of R&D personnel hold a Ph.D. Future demand of Ph.D.s is thus dependent also on the willingness of the business sector to recruit more people with the highest academic degree. Many young Ph.D. students, as well as employers, seem to have a rather narrow view of the career possibilities that are opened through researcher training. It is therefore necessary to further develop the content of doctoral programmes and to integrate an interdisciplinary approach more firmly into them. The Academy of Finland is preparing future strategies to address these issues.

Future Challenges
So far, there are no indications that the demand for professional researchers is going to decline. Completion of doctoral studies takes several years, which makes setting up doctoral programmes for very specific needs impossible. Finnish research and innovation policies face two major challenges: raising the quality of training and research, and increasing international competitiveness with the aim of creating and motivating attractive professional research careers. Good research infrastructures and high-quality research environments are the key elements in avoiding brain drain and earning brain gain.

PhDs in Finland: Employment, Placement and Demand (Helsinki, Publications of the Academy of Finland, 2003).

Scientific Research in Finland. A Review of Its Quality and Impact in the Early 2000s (Helsinki, Publications of the Academy of Finland, 2003).

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