Hallgrímur Jónasson, General Director, Rannis
Iceland has been hit harder than most by the global banking crisis. In the first of a two-part profile of the Icelandic Centre for Research, General Director, Hallgrímur Jónasson describes how support for young researchers, cooperation with both Nordic and European countries, and the creation of a knowledge economy, are paramount in securing a bright and prosperous future
Firstly, can you spell out Rannis’s vision in the context of Icelandic research?
The Icelandic Centre for Research (Rannis) supports research, technological development and innovation in Iceland, serving the whole Icelandic science community across all areas of science and the humanities. Rannis cooperates closely with the Science and Technology Policy Council (STPC) with the purpose of providing professional assistance in the preparation and implementation of S&T policy in Iceland. The main roles of Rannis are to:
• Operate the public financial support system for research and technological development
• Coordinate and promote Icelandic participation in collaborative international projects in science and technology
• Monitor the resources and performance in research and innovation
• Evaluate the results and impact of scientific research, technological development and innovation
• Promote public awareness of research and innovation in Iceland
Iceland’s economy has been heavily affected by the recent banking crisis. What ramifications has this had on the funding of Icelandic research, and what steps has Rannis taken to mitigate the downturn’s impact on science funding?
When the economic crisis hit Iceland, both the government and industry realised the importance of keeping to the policy of not cutting back on R&D and trying to maintain the level of public funding for research and innovation as far as possible. According to latest statistics from 2009, Iceland now invests 3.1 per cent of its GDP in R&D, which is an increase from 2.7 per cent in 2007. What this really means in real terms is that the extent of R&D activity is on a similar level in 2007 as in 2009, but the GDP has decreased after the crisis. The governmental contribution to universities and research institutions is 15-25 per cent lower than it was before the banking crisis. It has been the policy of the government to maintain the competitive part of the financing of R&D, so Rannis funds have more or less maintained the same level. The policy is to increase the competitive funding in the coming years. Still, Icelandic universities have had to cut down on research, since the crisis has resulted in an increased load on the educational part of their operations.
In what ways does Rannis promote Icelandic participation in collaborative international projects in science and technology? How integral is this to Centre’s remit?
One of the main roles of Rannis is to coordinate and promote Icelandic cooperation in international research projects. To that end, Rannis coordinates Iceland’s participation in the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), by promoting the programme and providing assistance to the science community through the National Contact Point system. Rannis also coordinates Iceland’s participation in other European initiatives, such as the European Cooperation in the Field of Scientific and Technical Research (COST), the European Science Foundation (ESF) and the Enterprise Europe Network (EEN). There is a strong tradition of international cooperation within the Icelandic science community, perhaps partly due to the relatively small size of the system and the subsequent need to look elsewhere for specific education or research opportunities. Nordic cooperation has always been very important in this respect and so has cooperation with the other European countries, especially the UK, Germany and France. Cooperation with the U.S. has also been very important for us.
The international aspect is of utmost importance for Rannis and we are proud of our role as the facilitating and promoting agent for enhancing the Icelandic science community’s international cooperation across all disciplines.
To what extent does Rannis hold particularly close concordances and collaborations within the Nordic research arena?
Nordic cooperation has always played an important role in the building up and development of science and research in Iceland. Institutions like NordForsk and the Nordic Innovation Centre (NICe) have often been an important stepping stone for institutions and companies towards Nordic cooperation. I hope that the new Topforsknings Initiative (Top Research Initiative), focusing on climate, energy and environment, will help up to advance further Nordic cooperation, taking the initiative into other areas.
Young and early-stage researchers are the lifeblood of the European research arena. In what ways does Rannis seek to foster and develop the skills of young researchers?
It is essential to attract young people to research and innovation and create opportunities for engaging in independent research and the development of start-up companies. This is particularly important in the aftermath of the crisis, as there is some concern now as many promising, young people want to leave the country, without plans for returning after their studies or training abroad. Rannis supports young researchers through some of its funds, especially through the Icelandic Research Fund for Graduate Studies and the Student Innovation Fund, as well as the Icelandic Research Fund. When it comes to the discussion at policy level, I believe that is important to ensure support for young scientists and give Icelanders as well as scientists of other nationalities the opportunity to initiate and develop their research activities in Iceland.
In December 2010, Rannis issued an impact assessment of the Icelandic Technology Development Fund for the period 2004- 08. Can you detail some of the assessment’s key findings or considerations?
The results of the assessment indicate that the fund has considerable impact as the main foundation for innovation at national level. Beneficiaries generally agree that it provides important benefit for various fields of R&D, emphasising that the support provided by the fund generates tangible value in the form of products and services, as well as increased knowledge, education and experience. However, the fund supports projects in their first stages of development, which is a process that can take 5-10 years or even longer in some fields, so it is not always possible to point at facts regarding turnover and increased jobs in the longer term. There is a plan to repeat the assessment within a few years to provide support for these indicators.
What do you consider to be the main challenges facing the Centre over the next 5-10 years?
I think the main challenge is to ensure our active role in building up a science and innovation system that has excellent performance as its main goal. Our system of research, development and innovation will inevitably always be small, but still has to be able to serve the needs of our country by cooperating with centres of excellence all over the world. This is a constantly moving target and I see the challenge in maintaining our position as an important knowledge economy while at the same time keeping up with the international research community. It is vital for our small nation to keep on its toes and promote its strengths in this respect.