Academy of Finland’s Jarmo Wahlfors shares how key players have developed a growth strategy to ensure a coherent approach to Finnish health research and innovation
Finland has traditionally had strong expertise in health research and innovation. This concerns both basic and clinical research, as well as the utilisation of results in health innovations, better preventions and clinical care. The health sector has so far thrived and developed despite the fact that the public key actors (authorities like ministries, government regulatory agencies, research funders etc.), have worked without too much understanding of each other’s strategies, actions and problems. This is probably the case in many other countries, too, but Finland is one of those small countries that just cannot afford to undertake crucial actions incoherently and repeatedly.
Recently this has become increasingly important since the global competition is getting tougher and the economic situation is tight. Under these circumstances, the political decision-makers are expecting profit from public investments in health research and development (R&D).
A growth strategy for health research
To fix the incoherence problem in the Finnish health sector, 3 relevant ministries (Ministry of Employment and Economy, Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, and Ministry of Education and Culture) and 2 major government research funding organisations (Academy of Finland and Tekes, the Finnish Funding Agency for Innovation) initiated a major effort that resulted in a common strategy. After hearing all the relevant stakeholders, the Health Sector Growth Strategy for Research and Innovation Activities was published in 2014, followed by the implementation phase, where the 3 ministries and 2 research funders continued to work on one common goal. After 2 years of intense work and following most of the strategy recommendations, a roadmap for 2016-2018 “Innovating together” was published.
Collaboration is key
The roadmap was a milestone for the Finnish health sector, not only because it revealed how successful working together can be: significant progress in the implementation and clear guidelines for the future development. Most importantly, the roadmap convinced the Finnish government about the importance of the health sector – health was adopted as one of the spearhead areas of the government programme, along with bio-economy, cleantech and digitalisation. This also involved additional investments to the health sector – government decided to invest significant amounts of money to the National Cancer Centre and the National Genome Centre, the major building blocks of the strategy.
The growth strategy is based on the idea of innovation ecosystems that evolve around the university hospitals. The cornerstone of an ecosystem is basic and clinical research carried out at universities and university hospitals, covering both the expertise and the research infrastructures. These honey pots then attract other players, especially start-ups and SMEs to utilise the system and create economical value and jobs. Since these ecosystems are as strong as their weakest link, the strategy implementation has involved a number of different actions to enhance their viability. It is important to support the interplay of the ecosystem parts, enhance the research infrastructures and adjust the legislation to enable simple use of data resources like health registries and biobanks.
Academy of Finland
From the perspective of the Academy of Finland, the major public research funding organisation, the crucial part of the ecosystem is basic scientific research carried out at the universities, university hospitals and state research institutes. Our role in the strategy work is to nurture this cornerstone and keep the building stable. During the strategy implementation, we have deepened our cooperation with the innovation funder Tekes for joint funding actions for health R&D, initiated mapping of the university hospital research infrastructures, continued to support clinical research with a special funding instrument and initiated several new health related research programs.
It is clear now that we have found a way to go forward. These times are challenging and we truly need to worry about the future of clinical research in Finland, but we are not alone anymore. We are now working together with our colleagues in different public sector organisations and we share the common goal: to keep these health ecosystems alive and developing, to bring wellbeing and economic value to Finland. It is relieving to know that our colleagues in the economy and health ministries also don’t worry only about economic growth or healthcare reform (which are, of course, very important issues to the strategy), but they share our concerns about basic research and understand that the whole structure collapses if the foundation wears out.
Director – Health Research Unit
Academy of Finland