Science- the future of Europe
19 December 2011
Greater collaboration in science is the way forward for economic wellbeing in Europe and Finland, believes Aalto University School of Electrical Engineering's Tuija Pulkkinen
The European economic outlook is complicated, as we are facing grand challenges related to climate change, an ageing population and need for new energy sources. Moreover, as the world population approaches seven billion, new solutions that use natural resources sparingly are also required. In addition to multidisciplinary research and education, an important task for universities is to provide support for entrepreneurship, both in terms of assisting emerging start-up companies and by developing close partnerships with the local industries.
Both European and Finnish economic wellbeing require significant investments in research for science and technology. In the medium and long term, the money spent on such endeavours will be recouped through improved competitiveness; better import-to-export ratios; and through technological solutions to environmental problems and the challenges facing healthcare – such as applications that help the elderly to lead independent lives for longer.
Electrical engineering – solutions for everyone
The Finnish industrial base has been built largely on the forestry, paper and metal industries; electronics; and ICT. These fields have all changed dramatically over previous years: instead of manual work or men operating forestry equipment, robotic machines are now at work in the woods; new processing and control systems are in place in big plants and factories; and ICT solutions have not only revolutionised homes, but also peoples' behaviour in everyday life.
In the field of electrical engineering, a focus on automation technologies, power systems, power electronics and high-voltage engineering enables universities to connect closely with the major industries operating in Finland. This knowledge base – augmented by signal processing, radio science, and micro and nanotechnology – prepares the way for new, integrated solutions and innovations in this sector. The Finnish research base in the ICT sector also provides electrical engineers for companies such as Nokia.
Electrical engineering is based on theories that were developed over 100 years ago, but much has changed since then. Previous decades have been dominated by electronics development, as mobile phones, digital cameras, wireless networks and personal computers have become available for a large portion of the population. The development of applications for these gadgets is still in progress, and is beginning to take over the market, above and beyond hardware development.
Engineering therefore is currently much more than hardware development, as the human interface intersects with research in all fields: acoustics requires knowledge of the human hearing experience; telecommunications only work if the information transfer in the machine-human interface operates smoothly; and medical applications that offer both diagnostics and cure are increasing in numbers.
Engineering and natural sciences require research infrastructures that are often large and expensive, and in most cases they are realised in international collaboration. Therefore, it is vitally important that the European nations ensure the maintenance and renewal of high-quality research infrastructures in order to attract top-level scientists and researchers. In addition to large facilities, increasingly networks of smaller observatories and laboratories can form larger entities, which together can be much more scientifically significant than if they operated independently. Such facilities can, and often are, nationally funded; but operations as a Europe-wide network and widening the group of potential users may require European-level facilitation.An international approach
Universities are increasingly competing over international visibility by attracting professors and staff members from other countries.
Becoming more international helps universities in multiple ways: a larger body of candidates enables universities to concentrate on the most promising talent, while the multicultural environment can lead to ideas and innovations that might otherwise not emerge.
Increasing numbers of international staff and students is not the only change taking place in universities; research is also regularly conducted in international teams, often funded by multiple countries or the various bodies of the EU. The EU Framework Programme, the European Research Area and European Research Council are all increasingly important sources of research funding.
Complementing national funding, the EU programmes offer good opportunities to network among European colleagues, tackle issues that are recognised as being critical for success in a Europe-wide context, and develop large programmes that, especially in a small country such as Finland, would not be feasible in a national context.
While finance is critical for the success of research programmes, funding obtained through international competition also serves as a benchmark for the quality of the research. For example, the prestigious European Research Council Starting Independent Researcher Grants are awarded to only 5% of applicants, which is among the highest competition in all forms of research funding. Gaining such an award is an indication of the excellence of both the individual young scientist and their research environment.Focus on the young
A tenure track professor career system enables the hiring of professor-level staff among those who are still in the early stages of their professions. To increase the quality of research and to enhance Finnish universities' connections to both local and international industries, renewing and strengthening professor-level staff is necessary.
The combination of technology, economics, art and design offers young, talented scientists unique opportunities to develop scientific ideas to innovations and products. For example, the Aalto Design Factory aims to facilitate state-of-the-art conceptual thinking and cross-disciplinary, hands-on doing. It serves as both an experimental platform and a showroom. In essence, the Design Factory is a place where students, teachers, researchers and industry partners can interact under the same roof. The factory has distinct enabling and supporting technologies, but perhaps even more important are the soft issues – philosophy, attitudes and the ways of working.
The need to educate the next generation of engineers to be capable of working across disciplinary boundaries and operating in rapidly changing environments must be recognised within university curriculums. This requires both multidisciplinary study programmes and concentration on methodologies and learning abilities, rather than facts as we know them today. For example, a degree programme on bioinformation technology should comprise studies from three schools of technology. Students should learn the basics of electrical engineering, chemistry and physics, whilst also focusing on the scientific and technological issues related to bioengineering, biological chemistry, biomaterials, computational and cognitive biosciences, or biotronics.
Multidisciplinary approaches can also be implemented within disciplinary degree programmes: under the space technology major, the Aalto-1 CubeSat project is developing a small satellite from technical and systems design to instrument building, launch and operations. The project was started in spring 2010 and aims to launch in 2013, thus providing one student generation with an opportunity to follow a complete satellite project from start to finish. The MSc level students running the project each concentrate on different parts of the design: structures, thermal design, power systems, computer hardware and software, antenna design and ground station. The excitement of the students as they advance the project through professionals reviewing the design is a strong signal that working together on difficult challenges is one of the best ways to learn a lot about many things in a rather limited time.
If we do not get this cooperative realism, there is much worse to come over this century unfortunately and we had better get used to it if we do not change our ways of thinking in terms of humanity's sustainability and survival.
As we enter a New Year we have to come to terms with the fact that the world is getting a far less predictable and unstable place to live. Our political leaders are supposingly there to provide for a 'bright' future and the sustainability of the human experience, but as history has shown unfortunately this never happens. There are many reasons for this but primarily it is due to the ever-emerging problematic picture on the horizon and where if our leaders do not get 'together' and work for the good of all nations, the outlook for humankind is stark. Indeed, global political cooperation at the highest level is dysfunctional in reality due in the main to the nationalistic political power perspective that eliminates the collective global good for all people. For with the world's dwindling natural resources and a capitalist system that is unyielding, time will come if global cooperation does not become a reality where the world will eventually be engulfed in continual global conflict, the likes of never seen before. Pointers to this grave emerging problem are, the EU's/USA's financial and economic meltdown, continual and highly unstable volatile financial global markets that will never fully bottom out (and that's a fact with the world, economies and people totally driven by debt), US total debt (Public/Private) of $57 trillion and increasing year-on-year, UK total debt by 2015 will be $16.5 trillion (P/P) and increasing according to projections by PwC, EU total debt of $53 trillion (P/P) and increasing, 10 billion people to feed by 2050, oil supplies that will not be able to keep the global economy going by 2055, energy for electricity that will only meet 65% of demand by 2050, available drinking water supplies that will only support 65% of the global population by 2055 or before, significant quantities of natural resources to support human life will have become near depleted by 2075 and those still available will be in the hands of the few and not the many. Indeed when we reach this latter point in the history of the world, global conflict to protect them will have already begun a decade before or even earlier. Therefore our political leaders have to grasp very quickly now that there has to be a global cooperative sense of realism before it is far too late to do anything about matters, for tomorrow is getting to be where it certainly will be too late. Indeed even the super-rich will not be able to get out of this one as it will affect all of us and where wealth will have lost most of its meaning. Therefore the vital and unrelenting need to build the vast ORE-STEM complex for humanity now, for nothing other than this life-preserving mechanism in reality will safeguard our species passed 2050. Overall our political leaders currently have a closed uncooperative global mind-set to all these destructive problems. The truth is that we only have a further 30-years to counteract humankind's greatest threat, as natural resources by 2075 will have passed the year where over 35% of humankind cannot be sustained or provided for in any meaningful way.
Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation
Dr David Hill - Huddersfield, UK