The first workshop of “Young Researchers as Knowledge Brokers” -project innovated new approaches and identified gaps

As a kick-off event for “Young Researchers as Knowledge Brokers” -project, Sitra Foundation and Demos held a facilitated workshop in August 2019 for Finnish young researchers, members of Young Academy Finland, ministry officials, journalists and members of parliament. The aim was to come up with a baseline for the existing (Finnish) knowledge brokering models & co-ordination of science-policy activities and to brainstorm some complementing new models to fill in the possible gaps.  

There are many good, already working models for connecting researchers and decision makers in use in Finland. Many of these were identified during the discussions of our first workshop of the “Young Researchers as Knowledge Brokers” -project. Some of the best Finnish practices mentioned during our workshop included e.g. pairing scheme for researchers and members of Finnish Parliament coordinated by Tutkas, Government’s joint analysis, assessment and research practices, Strategic Research Council, Forum for Environmental Information‘s Saumakohtia -dialogues or Faktabaari.

There were no best practice examples from the Young Academy Finland yet due to the young organizational age of our young academy. However, we hope that our one year project, which aims at delivering young researcher’s voice to Finnish academies’ national level Science Advice Initiative of Finland, can generate some new directions for new practices of science advice & its capacity building in Finland and also in the whole Europe.

The identified gaps or barriers for knowledge brokering or science advice activities were lack of support services and capacity building in the universities for researcher’s public appearances, and scant rewarding for communicating to the decision makers or for any other science-related activities than publishing. It was often stated that the responsibility of the development of knowledge brokering should not be left on the shoulder’s of individual researchers. Instead, science advice activities and knowledge brokering should be supported, initiated and coordinated by organizations like science academies, universities, ministries or knowledge brokers. Some existing institutional barriers acknowledged were e.g. scattered researcher pools (researchers are not easy/quick to find which supports the use of the usual suspects as advisors or commentators) and slim dialogue between different scientific fields & lack of true transdisciplinarity.

Our workshop groups came up with totally 8 ideas on new approaches or models that could be hosted in Finland. Young Academy Finland as the organizer asked for scalable models that could be transported not just to different administrative levels (from municipality decision making that is often neglected in science advice mechanisms to national or even EU level decision making) but also to different national contexts. Young Academy Finland also hoped that the new ideas would help bringing the diversity of actors together and hence support for solving complex problems like climate change or biodiversity crisis.

The top three new models to be set up but currently missing from the Finnish context were:

1.Leadership or “PoDoGo” -model

Example of “Postdocs in Government” -model comes from a succesfull matchmaking programme “Postdocs in Companies” that is run by Finnish universities, foundations and industry. Programme “offers a research period followed by a targeted research period lasting all together 1-2 years. PoDoCo foundation pool offers research grants for the research period. After the research period the company hires the Post doc to deepen the research results and to create company specific insight.” (PoDoCo 2020.)

The participants of our workshop felt that something like this is needed in Finland to train future science advisers and to build stronger connections between knowledge institutions and ministries & other decision making levels/bodies.

PoDoGo- model needs funding and commitment from multiple actors, but if launched, it would also generate a lot of information on the science-policy interface, provide (institutional) continuity for network building and above all it would help to train future researchers with a vast knowledge on decision making arenas.

2. “Meet a Researcher” -platform

Young Academy Finland coordinates a Finnish version of “Skype a Researcher”, which is a simple model for researchers to make a virtual visit at schools. The model has been a success in Finland, which has long geographical distances and few university cities. In order to guarantee quality science advice also for municipalities and regions distant to Universities, our workshop participants suggested a digital platform that would be directed also to decision makers and larger public.

Digital platform would respond to rapid knowledge needs. It would also help building one, big pool of researchers that would maybe hinder using the usual suspects as advisors.

3. Dialogues

The role model for dialogues are “Saumakohtia” -dialogues organized by Forum for Environmental Information and also inspired by Finnish Erätaukosäätiö’s Time Out -dialogue model. Later we found out through our project survey, that also the Dutch Young Academy organizes discussion events between Dutch companies and young researchers in order to ponder the sustainable development goals together.

Dialogues are safe environment events were small amount (5-10) of researchers and decision makers are invited together to discuss about a topic determined before the meeting. These events are usually organized with a help of brokering organization. Topics can be picked up either by decision makers or researchers, and according to Forum for Environmental Information’s experiences, allowing decision makers to pick up the topics supports their commitment to the dialogues. During the dialogues itself one aims at understanding each other and discussions between all parties rather than consensus or common understanding on the discussed topics.

Dialogue events are a great tool to generate understanding & trust, build new contacts and to share knowledge on “both sides”. Events do not require too much resources, but they do require skillful facilitation and brokering. Dialogue events are also an opportunity to build young researcher’s capacities for science advising: when more experienced researchers welcome also younger researchers to their delegations, younger researchers learn about the decision making environment, possible roles for science advising and they build contacts for future.