The Baltic Sea Region could be a frontrunner in developing the fifth freedom in the European Union - the free movement of knowledge. Enabling knowledge and researchers to move freely from country to country in the region, enriching corporations as well as academic institutions, the Baltic Sea Region could gain innovative and competitive advantages in the world economy
By Mikael R. Lindholm
To compete in the world economy the Northern European countries in the Baltic Sea Region need access to knowledge and talented people. These are the most important prerequisites in order to turn the competitive advantages of the region into competitive products in an ever increasingly competitive world market.
Unfortunately, demographic ageing, decreasing labour force, inflexible labour markets, high taxes and tight migration policies undermine the accessibility to human capital in the region. Worse, there is a drain of talent as bright scientific minds are increasingly moving outside the region, lured particularly to USA by a dynamic entrepreneurial culture, better wages and more accessible opportunities.
In order to compete successfully in the world economy as an innovative, dynamic and knowledge-based region and properly exploit its competitive advantages, The Northern European countries need to be better at developing, attracting and retaining the best and brightest.
To this purpose the countries should establish a single Northern European Knowledge Market increasing the cross-border mobility for high skilled labour, enabling the individual to access the businesses, universities and institutions in the region more easily while attaining similar work or research conditions, and simultaneously enabling companies, universities and institutions to access workers, researchers, students - and knowledge - in the region more easily.
That was the conclusion of a top level discussion at the Baltic Development Forum's annual summit 2008 in Copenhagen. The participants were Astrid Thors, Minister of European Affairs of Finland, Hálldor Ásgrímsson, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers, and Jørgen Ørstrøm, professor at Copenhagen Business School.
Also, a single Northern European labour market for high skilled labour, researchers and students could be an important first step towards realizing the broader EU ambition of creating the so called 5th freedom, allowing knowledge and ideas to move freely across the borders, and at the same time making the region more attractive to foreign talents, strengthening the region as a world class knowledge center.
According to Hálldor Ásgrímsson, knowledge is the single most important production factor today, which is why the Nordic countries - some of the most research intensive in the world - already have taken steps toward the establishment of a fifth freedom among the Nordic countries. These include the new generation of Nordplus programmes, fostering mobility between the five Nordic countries and the three Baltic states, the meta-regional Nordic research council NordForsk and the development of a new generation of collaboraton on research and innovation between the Nordic Council of Ministers and North West Russia.
"The Nordic Council of Ministers has also initiated the Nordic top-level research initiative, aiming to develop research in close collaboration with research units and enterprises, and promote innovation. The initiative aims to strengthen the knowledge base and competitiveness of the Nordic countries and enable a critical mass on central areas, on a scale that the countries could not achieve on their own," said Ásgrímsson.
The measures are necessary, according to Astrid Thors, who is critical towards the present status of the EU Research Policy: "It is too bureaucratic, too top-down, not enough driven by researchers themselves."
Astrid Thors finds the biggest challenge for the fifth freedom in a European context is to make sure that young researchers from the Baltic Sea Region find it interesting to work in the region and to attract new people from other parts of the world as well. At the same time she questions the benefits of the so called Research Directive which enables knowledge workers from third countries to enter the EU labour market, but still restricts the movement within the EU too much.
"So far only a few countries have implemented it. Only Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany and Norway have declared themselves open in principal to reciprocal, open funding programmes for researchers from other countries. And even so, in Finland, for instance, not a single institution has volunteered to make use of it. The research area needs a directive that enables a break-down of national barriers, like in the service sector," said Thors.
Jørgen Østrøm Møller cautions that the barriers to the free movement of knowledge and people in the Baltic Sea Region are detrimental to the ability of the region to compete globally.
"The Baltic Sea Region can only compete globally by being smarter and focus on knowledge - a production factor that can be used over and over again, be shared with others and improved after your own taste - and by offering something different that attracts interest from the rest of the world," said Ørstrøm Møller.
He emphasizes that networks - not least the internet - is an important enabler for the region and that the educational sector in the Baltic Sea Region will play a crucial role in supplying the people in the region with competencies and abilities that nobody knows for sure what will be.
According to Hálldor Ásgrímsson the Nordic Council of Ministers is already considering pursuing networks as an enabler by considering taking an initiative to establish a common knowledge infrastructure for the fifth freedom in the Baltic Sea Region.
"This could include physical infrastructure for high capacity networks around the entire Baltic Sea, high capacity networks for advanced research collaboration and digital services and the establishment of eScience as a common research area," said Ásgrímsson.
It is clear that in order to establish a Northern European Knowledge Market stakeholders from policy makers, business leaders and academia need to collaborate in addressing the major obstacles and formulating solutions that also involves issues on immigration, labour market structures, income taxes, university structures, educational curriculum, etc. To fully exploit the knowledge potential of such an initiative it would also be beneficial to establish a number of accelerators, such as cross-border competence networks and cross-border research and educational projects.
"There is need for flagship projects that could brand the Baltic Sea Region as a region with a knowledge factor that has global value. This would attract students from the rest of the world that are needed to globalize the universities in the region. Only then there could be true interaction with other major knowledge centers in the world which is crucial to success," said Ørstrøm Møller.
The timing of a Northern European Knowledge Market initiative is good. The European Commission is preparing an EU-strategy for the Baltic Sea Region and the Baltic Sea Region initiative could work as a pilot or frontrunner project that may provide valuable input to the development of a larger European Research Area. Consequently, Baltic Development Forum is taking steps in organizing the initiative.
"We will invite key stakeholders to participate in a high-level discussions in 2009 in order to initiate the process toward a Northern European Knowledge Market. The first step is to identify barriers and means to fulfill the vision, to create a process plan and to establish lead projects with relevant partners," said Hans Brask, director of Baltic Development Forum.
The stakeholders include governments, businesses, universities, science parks, EU, the Nordic Council of Ministers as well as public and private institutions and organizations.