Put international collaboration at the heart of academic research

The Norwegian University of Science and Technology is, “the university that built Norway”. Upholding this tradition calls for cooperation with institutions worldwide, links with industry, and home-based facilities that are centres of gravity for international researchers, says the Rector Gunnar Bovim

Gunnar Bovim

In this Q&A with Science|Business, Professor Gunnar Bovim, Rector of NTNU describes the university’s approach to maintaining excellence in research, through international collaboration with academics and industry, and building world-class facilities that will attract scientists to Norway. 

Q: NTNU is participating in a large number of projects under the European Union’s Framework Programme Seven. How are these progressing and do you expect the involvement to be continued under the new Horizon 2020 programme?

A: NTNU is a participant in 120 projects under the 7th EU Framework Programme, and we coordinate 20 EU activities. Different research groups have found their key international partners in different countries and in different institutions, and our goal is to support international cooperation where it is scientifically rewarding for the groups concerned.

In all, we have cooperative agreements with approximately 120 institutions worldwide. In addition, we have more than 300 Erasmus exchange students.

Beyond Europe, we have put considerable effort into establishing cooperation with Chinese partners, in particular in energy and materials research. There are now agreements in place with 25 Chinese institutions, and in addition NTNU has established three Joint Research Centres with three of China’s leading universities. 

Also in the field of energy research, NTNU is coordinating the Kyoto International Forum for Environment and Energy (KIFEE,) working with Japanese partners. And I am very pleased with an agreement we signed recently with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an important partner in energy research. 

At the same time, we are building partnerships in Brazil, India, Singapore and in several other countries around the world, with the aim of developing good models for long-term collaboration in research, education and innovation. 

Closer to home, NTNU is also member of the Nordic Five Tech alliance [a strategic partnership between five leading technical universities in the region], as well of CESAER [The Conference of European Schools for Advanced Engineering Education and Research, which aims to provide high quality engineering education in Europe].

Q: Can you describe your ambitions for the Ocean Space Centre at NTNU, in particular how it feeds into the ambition to develop world-class research facilities at NTNU and attract the best scientists from around the world?

A: Norway is a world leader in offshore oil and gas, the marine sector and fisheries and seafood processing. These industries represent 60-70 per cent of the country’s export income, and approximately 30-40 per cent of the value creation. 

Building on this maritime tradition and expertise, new sectors are emerging, such as subsea mining, renewable energy, and the development of marine biological resources. NTNU wants to contribute to maintaining and building Norway’s leading position in ‘Ocean Space’, and to delivering on the vision of a ‘blue’ Norwegian economy. The Ocean Space Centre is one of our routes to fulfil this goal. 

The Centre will be involved in the development of ocean space technology, and the generation of knowledge that contributes to the sustainable utilisation of the oceans. It will be home to laboratories dedicated to the study of hydrodynamics, and structural and machinery-related problems. 

The hydrodynamics laboratories will focus on accurate modelling of the complete ocean environment, covering wind, waves and currents, enabling complex offshore ships and structures to be tested in realistic environments, in realistic operational tests. 

In addition to providing a physical research base, the Ocean Space Centre aims to be a “centre of gravity” integrating experiments carried out at sea with research activities in-house, and at other institutes. 

Furthermore, we believe that the new centre will be an attractive place to work - on short or long assignments, and will therefore become a “centre of gravity” for researchers worldwide.

Construction is due to start in 2017, with the centre complete and fully operational by 2023. The construction will be phased so that research, including laboratory testing, will continue with only minor disturbances during construction.

Q: How important is it for NTNU to collaborate with industry, and how would you like to see such relationships develop in the future? 

A: NTNU is number two in global rankings of universities with most interaction with industry in the category of Natural Science and Engineering. In 2012 we registered 90 business ideas, 34 patents, 11 licence contracts and formed 11 spin-off companies. 

We have a strong internal system for innovation. The Gløshaugen Innovation Centre is Norway’s first campus incubator for innovation in business and industry. Currently, there are 16 start-ups in the incubator. Another company, NTNU Technology Transfer Office AS, helps transform new knowledge into commercial opportunities. Since its start in 2004, it has registered 898 ideas from students and academic staff, and made 362 patent applications. A total of 99 ideas have been commercialised.

Q: Does NTNU promote entrepreneurships amongst its students?

A: We have several courses for students related to entrepreneurship and also Start NTNU, a student-run organisation promoting innovation. In addition, NTNU Discovery finances R&D results with commercial potential. 

Last year saw the establishment of the Norwegian Research School in Innovation. This provides an internationally competitive PhD programme in innovation, bringing together a research network of Norwegian universities and colleges, leading institutions in Scandinavia, and top international universities in the US, Europe and Asia. 

Q: What are the unique strengths of NTNU in driving excellent research and promoting innovation?

A: NTNU is the university that built Norway. This is the phrase our former Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg used when he joined us for our 100th anniversary three years ago. We continue to build our country. In addition, we are working towards building a brighter future by bringing forth knowledge for a better world. This is our vision, to which we are dedicated.  One of our biggest strength is our emphasis on cross-disciplinary research and education. A small example: we are on the leading edge in specific areas of technology and we are on the leading edge in jazz, with our own ensemble. 

Q: What in your view, are the biggest challenges facing universities, including NTNU, today? 

A: In 2013, 11,800 students listed NTNU as their preferred place of study, and 8,000 of them were accepted. One of the biggest challenges is to remain attractive, and to develop relevant disciplines in an age where the world is changing fast. The rapid pace of change means the need for knowledge is also accelerating. One important tool is to have a good long-term strategy. It is also more important than ever to combine excellent education and good values. 

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