Highly advanced prosthetic limbs. Microwave ovens. Studies on the significance of Herbert Read’s use of adjectives in his later works.
Without scholars, none of these things would enrich our lives and culture. But scholars require a healthy degree of stimulation and resources to properly function and although capitalism sometimes sees fit to support its scientists in hope of future profits, that is not always the case – especially since the gains of certain research projects aren’t always measurable in nickels and dimes. This is where the state can often come in handy, as is the case with the Icelandic Student Innovation Fund, an organisation that has for 14 years provided Icelandic university students the opportunity to advance their research during the academic downtime of summer.
The fund’s director, Hanna María Jónsdóttir, explains that the fund was originally established to provide students with a source of summer income at a time when conditions in the job market were particularly poor. Since then, it has evolved into a full-fledged research grant, funding studies that serve as valid contributions to the academic community.
“We provide university students with an opportunity to advance their studies by working on exciting and demanding projects during their summer vacations, a viable alternative to pumping gas. It is of course a great benefit for the community to have around 200 students working on various projects every year. At the end of each summer, we receive a lot of interesting results and it’s fair to say that the whole project affects our surroundings in a positive way,” Jónsdóttir says.
The Icelandic Student Innovation Fund is mostly financed by the Ministry of Education along with the city of Reykjavík. Certain research is co-financed by companies that are interested for whatever reason; some contact the fund looking to supply funding while applicants wishing to extend their funding seek others out. Jónsdóttir explains that the fund provides grants for both high-tech scientific projects that evoke the interest of companies such as Marel, as well as more obscure liberal-arts research that rather belongs within the confines of the university. “We provide 110,000 ISK per month and the students are free to expand that amount by seeking assistance from businesses of interest. One of the fund’s stronger points is that it is incredibly diverse; we see a wide array of interesting projects going forward that would otherwise go unexplored. Our aim is to actively encourage innovation and fertile thinking among students of all persuasions and we fund about 140 projects yearly to accomplish that.”
One of the students currently receiving the grant is 28-year-old philosophy major Arnþrúður Ingólfsdóttir. Along with a friend, she applied for funding last year to make a documentary exploring teenagers’ outlook on the role of gender as portrayed in the media. This year, the duo got further funding to finish editing the piece, which they expect to complete this fall. “I applied on behalf of two separate projects last year, one was a standard and strictly academic pursuit, endorsed by a professor at the University of Iceland while the other one was this less orthodox documentary with my friend, media student Vigdís Þormóðsdóttir. I was pleasantly surprised when the fund favoured the documentary, as I felt it was a riskier endeavour. This is one of the great things about these grants in my opinion, you can receive finances to do whatever it is you wish as long as it’s sensible, interesting and has some academic merit.”
I asked her to expand a little and talk about the documentary project and the motivation behind it: “Adults regularly complain about the low quality of the material directed at teenagers, bad sitcoms, music videos and fashion shows. Parents, teachers and scholars are very outspoken on the subject, but little is heard from the teenagers themselves. Maybe they don’t receive enough motivation to criticise what’s put in front of them; in any case, we wanted to present them with the opportunity and incentive to discuss it in the media itself. To that extent, we sought out and interviewed a wide variety of teens and a lot of what they said came as a real surprise. They are definitely more observant than they usually get credit for – you just have to ask the right questions. Hopefully, our efforts can contribute to the image of a socially aware and critical teenager.
Ingólfsdóttir says that a professor encouraged her to apply to the fund. “I’ve been aware of it for a long time, as many of my friends and acquaintances have effectively used it to further their studies. I like the fact that it doesn’t solely focus on the natural sciences and often provides the means for projects of an almost artistic nature. For instance, my friend Kristín once received a grant to study towers in Reykjavík, staging concerts and exhibitions there throughout the summer.”
That doesn’t mean that the Icelandic Student Innovation Fund ignores the more concrete sciences; on the contrary it seems to keep an accurate balance in choosing recipients. Sæmundur Jón Oddsson is a 25-year-old medical student who currently receives funding to further his research on stem cells. After spending a year in a Swedish stem cell research facility, he applied for a grant to be able to continue his studies while school was out.
“I think the fund is doing excellent work in allowing university students to carry on their work during the summer or realising some of the ideas they may have thought up in their studies. Although I’ve worked part-time at an ER this summer, I’ve managed to spend most of my time and effort on this project I am participating in. We’ve even managed to come up with some very interesting results that we plan on presenting at an overseas science seminar soon.”
Oddsson says the project is difficult to explain without reverting to complicated nerd-speak. In the simplest terms he and his fellow researchers are looking into what happens when an unspecified stem cell from a mouse embryo develops into a heart-muscle cell. He has hopes the research will one day inch the scientific community a tiny bit further towards improving the life expectancies of heart patients. “We have seen some progress, although it is much too early to predict how it will turn out. Either way, I am very happy to have had the chance to spend my summer on this project,” Oddsson adds.
It is apparent that even if their current projects amount to nothing, Ingólfsdóttir and Oddsson’s time has not gone to waste this summer and neither has the state money that goes into financing the Icelandic Student Innovation Fund. When asked if it can accommodate all grant-enquiries, Jónsdóttir tells us that they only have the financial means to support about half of their applicants each year. “We are always working on securing more finances for the project, as the number of participants has been steadily growing since the fund’s inception. Of course, there are always a number of applications that we have to turn down, but we do provide for close to 190 students a year. That means a lot of work is getting done.”