Forest research is feared to disappear into new natural resources research centre

7.8.2014 / Article

Professor, Mr. Risto Seppälä proposes a new council for forest research, which would comprise all forest research institutions in Finland.

In his report on the future of forest research, Seppälä proposes that the council should be established by Lynet, a network of Finnish research institutes in the sectors of natural resources and environment.

The proposal does not sound very inspiring to Mr. Taneli Kolström, Research Director at the Finnish Forest Research Institute, or Metla (Metsäntutkimuslaitos in Finnish). ”An advantage could be that it might clarify the division of tasks among different institutions,” says Kolström.

Still, Kolström feels that researchers already know what other researchers are up to. ”There already exist all kinds of bodies for cooperation and, in the end, whoever provides the funds also decides what to research,” says Kolström.

The project to establish the new centre for natural resources research, provisionally called Natural Resources Institute Finland, or NRIF, is led by Mr. Hannu Raitio, on leave of absence from his permanent post as the Director of Metla. He thinks that the proposed council is necessary, though his reasons are different from Seppälä’s.

Raitio considers that it could be an answer to the risk, also expressed by Seppälä, that the concepts of forest research and ultimately the research itself could disappear into the new centre for natural resources research, which will be created through the merger of Metla, MTT Agrifood Research Finland and the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute.

One may think that the risk is small, because of the obvious and great significance of the forest sector in Finland. However, the new centre will be a bureaucratic body, in which the value of each branch of research may easily come to be defined according to the money it is able to mobilise and not according to the significance of the business activity needing the research or to the actual sources of money.

Forestry is not visible in the government finances

Forestry is the only branch of production which is profitable in the world market regardless of its location in Finland. It produces raw material for the extremely important forest industry. Still, in terms of Government administration, it does not appear to move great sums of money.

On the other hand, agriculture mobilises much larger sums of money, which clearly distorts views inside administration. You can see this in the published history of the Finnish Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, for example: forestry has been allocated a scant two pages out of the total 47.

Kolström says, however, that we have to start focusing on the sources of money. ”If you look at the research strategy of the ministry, for example, it does mention the livelihoods based on forests, but very infrequently. In addition to this, some of the public money related to the forest sector is channelled through the Ministry of Employment and the Economy. We really do face challenges here,” says Kolström.

Raitio agrees about this. ”The Academy of Finland also hardly talks about forests. In the universities, forests are vanishing even from all terminology. The council proposed by Seppälä could ward off some of these threats,” Raitio remarks.

”The Metla brand must not vanish”

In his report, Seppälä also voices the concern that the Metla brand would vanish. It is much better known in its own sector than the two other institutions joining the NRIF are in theirs.

As regards this, Kolström and Raitio both agree. ”The Metla brand brings indispensable advantages and we have to be able to keep them. The best body to ensure this is the NRIF,” says Kolström.

Raitio remarks, however, that international visibility is gained and maintained by international activity.

”Above all, Metla’s visibility is created by activity in the International Union of Forest Research Organizations, the IUFRO,” says Raitio and continues that ”we should not be ashamed of the forest research in Finland as such either, though you cannot say it gains plenty of references in global forest research.”

Metla gained an international reputation by organizing the World Congress of IUFRO in 1995. Since then, Metla’s representation in IUFRO bodies is much higher than would be warranted by the size of Finland or its forest sector.

In this context, Raitio is concerned about plans to decrease the finances for the NRIF’s international cooperation. ”If this line is chosen, we can no longer talk about international influence and reputation. I am proposing the contrary: we should increase the funding so as to participate more in the activities of the European Forest Institute EFI as well, in order to gain more influence there. This is the key to international reputation,” says Raitio.

”Forest sector needs a research strategy”

Seppälä also calls for a research strategy for the Finnish forest sector. Other research institutions as well as those commissioning research and using the results should participate in drafting it.

Kolström points out that universities, for example, already participate in more than 50 percent of the research publications by Metla. In addition to this, the users of research results are already involved in the preparation and implementation of all Metla’s research programmes.

“In my opinion, we do have enough plans and strategies. I think we should just start working,” says Kolström.

Seppälä also proposes that recruitment for all researcher posts should be international. Kolström is less categorical: “We still have many cases in which the researcher has to be able to speak Finnish, in order to transfer the research results into practice, for example.” On the other hand, there are branches of research where it is very difficult to find Finnish doctoral-level researchers.

Raito, however, supports the idea. “Of course recruiting can be international, but it’s another matter who is finally chosen,” Raitio says.

Seppälä is not satisfied with the international networking of forest research or with the researchers’ willingness to work abroad. This is also a cause of concern for Raitio and Kolström.

”Work trips of two or three months are popular, yes, but last year, for example, only three of our three hundred researchers made a longer stay abroad,” says Kolström.

As regards Metla, Kolström thinks that especially after the progress made in the last few years, its networks are extensive.

“What, then, are the real problems?”

What Raitio most marvels at is that Seppälä says nothing about the problems of forest education in Finland. “To take an example, the targets set by Seppälä, and others in the forest sector as well, cannot be reached without a better education in communication, marketing and business economics as part of forest education,” says Raitio.

On the other hand, Kolström asks if the largest problems of the forest sector really relate to research. “At the moment, many regions in Finland are close to the limits of sustainable logging and there are huge investments planned to increase the use of wood. We do know how to increase the growth of our forests, but we are unable to implement the actions needed,” says Kolström.

Kolström thinks the most important subject for forest research is to find out why it is so difficult to get rid of the backlog of forest maintenance activities. “Yes, it is true that within a relatively short time period we have increased the growth of our forests by a factor of 1.5, but at the same time Sweden has doubled it. They have been able to transfer the knowledge into practice, while we have not,” Kolström says.

Kolström resorts to the terminology of amateur radio: in order to be connected, both parties need a sender and a receiver, they need a common language and they have to find each other. “Finding each other should not be a problem by now. The users of research results participate in the research plans to the maximum amount possible,” Kolström says.

The report “Overall survey of forest research” by Seppälä was financed by the Metsämiesten Säätiö Foundation.

Further information:

Natural Resources Institute Finland


Hannes Mäntyranta

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