Still first-class, but there's reason to invest in innovation

Interdisciplinary collaboration and the recruitment of talented researchers promote renewal. New ideas are often born where scientific disciplines interact, when experts from different disciplines challenge one another and combine their abilities and resources. So writes the University of Jyväskylä's Prof. Sarianna Sipilä in Liikunta & Tiede magazine.

Nordic sport-sciences research has shown the way in the field's international research arena almost since the middle of the 20th century. Its reputation is excellent: internationally, it has been considered innovative and superior in quality for several decades.

The importance of effectiveness

In the last ten years, effectiveness has become a key word in the public Finnish discussion of research.

Some researchers fear that an excessive demand for effectiveness will lead to a situation in which research is valued only in the context of its exploitability. Others meanwhile think that research should always produce knowledge that immediately benefits the society.

The viewpoint depends in part on the scientific discipline. In the case of basic sciences, demonstrating chains of effectiveness can be more difficult than with applied sciences. This doesn't mean, however, that the impact of basic research is weaker than that of applied research.

At the outset of the evaluation of the sport sciences in the Nordic countries, research organizations' own assessment did not include an evaluation of the effectiveness of the research activity. This may stem from the fact that good, unambiguous tools for the assessment of effectiveness do not exist.

In its final report, however, the international panel took a position on this issue. That position is founded on interviews conducted in each Nordic country during the panel members' visits. The panel found that the effectiveness of research is weighed primarily by those sport scientists whose research projects are associated with certain limited human groups, such as elite athletes or groups of patients, or whose research orientation lies in public-health disciplines. The panel considered research on musculoskeletal health, and on rehabilitation for and prevention of chronic diseases, to be especially positive. That research has had and will have a significant role in the development of therapeutic and clinical practices.

Cooperation and interchange highlighted

Sport scientists know one another. For that reason, there has been plenty of problem-free national, Nordic and other international research collaboration. So I assumed. I also assumed that sport scientists do plenty of work with researchers in other scientific fields. For example, in the autumn of 2011, at the University of Jyväskylä. four doctoral dissertations bearing closely on sport sciences were examined. Experienced researchers from various scientific domains - including geriatrics, genetic epidemiology and public-health science - participated in the direction of the doctoral work. The international panel did not however see the extent of research collaboration and researcher mobility as adequate. Might it be possible that the sport scientists were unable to depict their research collaboration clearly enough, and in the way it deserved?

The report found that the innovativeness of Nordic sport-sciences research declined in the 2006-2010 period, in comparison with its earlier “Golden Age”.

I presume that innovativeness, in this context, refers to the ability and boldness to create genuinely new research questions and to test them with the aid of the best possible research configurations and methods. The question is thus one of a capacity for renewal, a capacity that produces new know-how and new knowledge and increases the possibility of a scientific breakthrough. A capacity for renewal presupposes openness, the learning of new things, an anticipatory, future-oriented skill, and the courage to take risks and fail. Interdisciplinary collaboration and the recruitment of talented researchers promote a capacity for renewal and the emergence of new ideas. New ideas are often born where scientific disciplines interact, when experts from different disciplines challenge one another and combine their abilities and resources.

Excellent researcher training, an enthusiastic and well-educated corps of researchers, an excellent international reputation, and the opportunity to intensify multidisciplinary research collaboration create splendid prerequisites for sport-sciences research's capacity for renewal and will guarantee success in future, too.