The following is an excerpt.
Our neighbours are crushing Norway in innovation. The gap between what the business community needs and what the universities deliver is only growing. What can we do about it? asks SFI CASA´s director Magnus Langseth in this chronicle published in the newspaper Khrono.
Technology Readiness Level Scale. (Illustration Sølvi W. Normannsen / Colourbox. Source: PWC Norge)
Despite all the possibilities and a flood of measures, there is too little research in companies for the future and value creation in Norway. Many attempts become stranded in technology’s valley of death. This is the graveyard where good business ideas die and innovative opportunities are lost.
This is the bottom of the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale, which shows the maturity of a technology from basic research to commercialization. Academia invests in research and remains at levels 1-4, while industry wants mature technology and production at levels 7-9. The innovative shipwrecks are in between. This is exactly where we need to build bridges between academia and industry.
I have more than 30 years of collaboration with leading Norwegian companies and international industry. In the last 15 years I have been the head of a centre for Research-based Innovation (SFI), one of the Research Council’s elite initiatives.
The SFI scheme is bridge building in practice. Our research provides a basis for innovation in companies. In SFI CASA, we have developed a technology platform for simulating the behaviour of materials and structures exposed to extreme loads. Hydro, Equinor and four of the world’s leading car manufacturers are among our partners.
The long-term plan for research and higher education states that the Centre schemes are important tools for innovation. The Minister of Research and Higher Education, Ola Borten Moe, has requested expert advice, and we can give it. We have proven experience in operating an SFI. Here are our 9 suggestions:
- Strengthen the SFI requirement that innovation must be based on research.
The SFI initiative will strengthen the ability of the business sector to innovate through close collaboration between the best research environments and companies with active R&D. It was exactly here that Damvad Analytics found that the SFI scheme failed, when they evaluated it in 2018: Few Norwegian business partners were engaged in research and were less active than expected. The Research Council must therefore set crystal clear requirements for innovation where companies use the research carried out in the centres, not the latest and best that can be bought in the market.
- Publishing = quality assurance – use the system more actively.
A number of Norwegian industry players, who are not engaged in research, seem to consider the SFI scheme as joint voluntary work to increase knowledge and education. The partners in SFI CASA who are most engaged in research themselves are not concerned with voluntary work; they only want to know: “What’s in it for us?”. International industry considers that collaboration must be based on research published in leading journals, the rest is uninteresting. Some companies and research institutes in the SFI scheme seem less concerned with this important aspect of quality assurance, so there is a lot to be gained here.
- Give the PhD candidates 4 years to obtain their doctorates.
The doctoral degree programme in Norway is fairly streamlined, with a standard time of 3 years. Many base their degree on several published individual papers. These frameworks quickly become narrow and provide poor conditions for exploring new ideas. If you take the PhD degree in 3 years, you need a clear progress plan and a team of active supervisors. Many candidates do not have these. In SFI CASA, we give our candidates 4 years. The extra year allows ideas to mature. It provides a closer connection with our partners, more cooperation, and helps with the transfer to industry.
- Popular science dissemination.
Quality assurance of research takes place in international journals in English. This is crucial for international research collaboration. All centres should also have a plan for popular science dissemination in both Norwegian and English, so that more people can discover the opportunities provided by research.
- Abolish the system that uses bibliometric methods for measuring scientific work.
As the editor of an international journal, I also consider that this bibliometric measuring scheme should be abolished. It leads to pressure to publish, it rewards quantity over quality, and it threatens to break down the entire review system. In my journal we reject 7 out of 10 submitted articles because the content is neither new nor unique.
- Monitor research maturity.
We need a system that monitors the maturity of the individual research activities on the TRL scale. This gives a year-by-year picture of which technology is ready to be transferred to industry, and where more effort is needed to meet the needs of industry. In this way, the research environments are placed in an active relationship to transfer knowledge and have an overview of where the next doctoral or postdoctoral project should be.
- Reward the very best environments.
We need more incentives for the best research environments. We need more targeted funding, and preferably the earmarking of funds for the transfer of technology. We need more permanent scientific positions, and greater predictability. Today, there is no reward for environments that manage to move out of the valley of death.
- Cash is king – the SFI funding should be changed.
The industrial partners’ share is a minimum of 25 per cent in the form of cash contributions or own contributions. The rest is public funding. Many partners choose own contributions, but they are usually not as active as they have promised. Damvad proposed that the non-public funding for SFIs should only be in cash. Our experience is that partners who invest cash are more active than the own contributors and specifically state that they want research that can be used.
- Let students play a more important role.
In Europe, master’s students are important bridge builders between academia and industry; this is not the case in Norway. We see that our foreign partners give students assignments in ongoing research activities, they participate in the evaluation of research and make practical contributions in its use. An example is Renault, which actively uses master’s students to evaluate all research against the company’s needs.
Great initiative, but little innovation
There are plenty of actors and schemes that plan to accelerate innovation in Norwegian academia. However, it is too slow. Ola Borten Moe had barely warmed his ministerial chair before he had to answer for the Global Innovation Index, where Norway once again was the jumbo in the Nordic region. A recent study from the European University Association shows a gap between the universities’ goals for innovation and their capacity to work with it.
Ministers to the Valley of Death
Borten Moe has been on tour in his sector this autumn, while the Minister of Trade and Industry Jan Christian Vestre planned to visit 100 companies before Christmas. The two ministers are at opposite ends of the TRL scale, but they have the same goal: Accelerate innovation, transfer more research into profitable jobs and revolutionary technologies. In Norway, we have everything we need to make this happen: World-leading research environments, a strong business community and a wealthy state. Item 10 on the list is a call to the ministers to jointly take action to build bridges over technology’s valley of death.