Nordic research collaboration – what’s the point?

Naively, one might think that reputation in science is about scientific excellence and brilliant minds – and partly that is true, of course. However, this is far from the entire truth: On the Academic Ranking of World Universities 2017, University of Copenhagen is in place 30, Karolinska Institutet is 44th, University of Helsinki is 56th, and University of Oslo is 62. This is fairly good, but still quite far from the real top places.

Among the top 30, there is an almost ridiculous dominance by native English-speaking nations. The highest ranked non-English nation university is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich at place 19, University of Tokyo in place 24, and as third, University of Copenhagen.

Without a doubt, American, British, Canadian, and Australian universities are very good, but are they really that dominant in scientific excellence? The answer to that question is simple – No. The reason the English-speaking nations can dominate the rankings to such a high degree is the obvious one: the language of science is English. Before the Second World War, the language of science was, by and large, German, and then German universities were dominating the world scene of science.

The reason for this language-driven dominance is that science is indeed about scientific excellence and brilliant minds, but it is also about prestige, visibility, and building a strong brand. This is incredibly much easier if you master the language of science far better than your competitors. And when the entire staff of a university has this advantage, that university easily becomes famous and reach the top of the rankings.

If you are Scandinavian and your name has strange letters with dots and lines and your affiliation is a university nobody-ever-heard-of, then it is very hard to become a famous scientist just on your own. It demands that you are very socially talented, and write like a world class novelist. The best chance to reach a prestigious position is to seek collaboration with already strong names and institutions.

Lately I have come across criticism about Nordic research collaboration in the form: what is really the benefit of all these collaboration attempts? Indeed, the science itself rarely needs any officially lead collaborative projects. The researcher themselves can handle that just fine – often in a highly casual fashion.

The benefit, however, is of a different kind: Let’s imagine we count the Shanghai list of university ranking of 2017 so that we count the Nordic country as one nation. Looking for how far we have to go down the list to find the three strongest universities of a country. America is then number one, followed by UK, and the Nordics in the third place! Then follows Germany, Switzerland, Canada, and France.

Does anybody think that scientific research in the Nordic countries has a general reputation that is this high? Sure, Sweden is famous for the Nobel prize, and Denmark for the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics, but in general the Nordic countries are famous for stable, democratic, and socially just societies, not for their science.

This is what the Nordic scientific collaboration should be all about – to build larger, stronger academic entities with much more international visibility. That’s the point!


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Jan Åström

Jan Åström

The writer is Fil. Dr. in Theoretical physics from Åbo Akademi University and a developer of scientific code at CSC.

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