Published 12 January 2016

The front line of strategic research

– an analysis of international financiers' focus and support instruments

Growth Analysis has been commissioned by the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) to perform an international policy intelligence analysis that describes future strategic research. The time perspective covers the next 5–10 years.

The report describe the future of strategic research, focusing on:

  1. strategies and control
  2. prioritised areas
  3. support instruments.

Strategic research has become an increasingly important area. Countries such as China and South Korea are making significant efforts to develop their research systems. Even greater regeneration is taking place outside of the pure research policy field, at the boundary with other areas. Research policy is being twinned with industrial policy in order to stimulate growth, and with the development of the public sector in order to address social challenges. To some extent, strategic research has consequently grown beyond its traditional strategies, control forms and support instruments.

From an international perspective, there is clear focus on the research becoming increasingly strategic, and hence also on the search for new support instruments. The hope is to be able to create a bridge between basic research and commercialisation, and to reduce the time it takes e.g. for a new product to reach the market.

Increased flexibility requires shorter planning horizons

The results from the policy intelligence analysis show that most research financiers have relatively short planning horizons of around 3–5 years. The future focus of the financiers is governed to a large extent by the countries' political agendas, which normally follow 3–5 year cycles. Short planning horizons make it possible for the financiers to quickly alter their strategies in order to meet new requirements. The majority of the financiers want to have a more flexible and more efficient financing system. This appears to be linked to the growing pressure for change in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.

Balance between basic research and needs-driven research

The policy intelligence analysis also shows how the research financiers are constantly balancing the Government's research priorities on the one hand with free research on the other, where the researchers themselves determine the focus and where funds are granted based on the peer review system. In order to receive state research funds, the financiers often need to demonstrate that they will implement political priorities in their efforts. When the political priorities change, existing research funds are often diverted so that a new political focus can be implemented. In China and South Korea, for example, major research policy changes are currently being implemented, which will also alter large parts of the financing system.

Broad themes rather than specific research areas

A large proportion of the research priorities included in the financiers' strategies can be traced to the relevant country's political regulatory documents. The areas that are highlighted in the political regulatory documents are broad, and in some cases have the character of social challenges rather than demarcated subject areas. This means that the financiers in turn seldom prioritise clearly demarcated subject areas in their strategies, but rather formulate broad national challenges in order to simplify communication with the political sphere and demonstrate that policies are being implemented.

The results from the policy intelligence analysis show that the recurring broad themes are:

  • digital transformation
  • greener materials and production
  • life sciences that focus on complex, care-intensive areas.

At the same time, there is a dualism in the descriptions of which priorities are important. On the one side, the themes and broad areas that are put forward in the research policy are important. On the other side, a large proportion of the financiers state that they want to be more flexible in the future and to reprioritise existing funds when the need arises. In the event the financiers' future priorities are significantly affected by political priorities, the process is described as "top-down". When the focus of the research that the financiers intend to support in future is largely determined by the researchers themselves, the process is described as "bottom-up". The intelligence analysis shows that the prioritisation processes are complex and have both "top-down" and "bottom-up" elements at the same time. 

Decoupling between strategies and support instruments

The evidence presented in this report indicates that there is often a fairly clear link between the controlling policy documents and the financiers' strategies, but that there is a lack of coherence with the support instruments. There is a decoupling between strategies and support instruments. In general, the strategies are more innovative than the support instruments. Despite this, the analysis shows that most financiers will not be renewing their support instruments to any great extent over the upcoming 5–10 year period.

Considerable need for new support instruments for utilisation

The financiers' rhetoric regarding the search for new support instruments is increasing as the research becomes more and more strategic. The hope within the strategies is often to be able to create a bridge between basic research and commercialisation, in order to reduce the time it takes for a new product to reach the market. This means increased demands for results, produced within the framework of the various types of support instruments, achieving commercialisation and thereby contributing to economic growth.

The areas being discussed in the future strategies, but that have not yet been implemented fully in the support instruments, include:

  • PPP collaborations with both large and small companies
  • societal challenges that require participation from many different players, such as companies, the public sector and multi-disciplinary research teams
  • the design of strategic research initiatives that are able to create a bridge to commercialisation
  • recruitment of talented programme leaders
  • definition of research questions together with relevant stakeholders, such as citizens, patients, users and companies.

The front line of strategic research – an analysis of international financiers' focus and support instruments

Serial number
Report 2015:09

Reference number

Download the report in SwedishPDF