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Different priorities for common policies

At a time when national governments are tightening their belts, it makes sense for Nordic countries to collaborate on expensive research infrastructure to increase efficiency and cut costs.

However, with a diverse set of priorities across the region, it’s not easy to decide what projects to follow and how much money everyone should put into the pot. Denmark, for example, focuses on wind energy infrastructure, whereas Finland is building its nanotechnology capacities and Sweden is putting emphasis on the European Spallation Source to be built in Lund.

Therefore, calls for more cooperation at the Joint Nordic Focus on Research Infrastructures conference held at the end of 2013 seemed ambitious. Gunnel Gustafsson, director of funding agency Nordforsk, called for “nothing less than a joint research infrastructure policy” across the Nordic region. Although many Nordic countries struggle to have a coordinated policy even at national level, it is time to step up efforts because it’s what both policymakers and researchers want, she said.

However, Peter Sloth, head of technology and innovation at Denmark’s science and innovation ministry, does not think a common Nordic policy is viable. It would be difficult for interest groups and countries to agree on common priorities, he said. “We’ve heard the word prioritisation several times, but we haven’t heard what to prioritise and when to close things down.”

Common infrastructure projects such as the ESS have shown that although many countries support such initiatives in words, foot-dragging ensues when it is time to talk money. The ESS is hosted by Sweden and Denmark, who together with Norway will contribute half of the 15 billion Swedish kronor (€1.7bn) needed. Switzerland and France are the only other countries to have promised cash so far, even though construction is expected to begin in June 2014. 

Gustafsson said that a top-down approach is essential. “Without top-down thinking we’ll get stuck in a dragged-out process finding out where funding will come from,” she said. “We need high-level political commitment to actually do something.”

Sloth, on the other hand, emphasised the need to have a bottom-up process and to make prioritisations together. “The situation is chaotic: there are a lot of interests, and funders do not just include universities and ministries but also private funds,” he said. “We should not make common policies, but have white papers and discussions together that include all the interest groups.”

Although participants agreed on areas in which to cooperate more closely, including environment, education and e-infrastructure, there was uncertainty by the end of the conference about the extent to which countries were willing to commit. It seems that Pan-Nordic infrastructure policy remains a long way off.