You have many roles in your professional life: you work as a researcher in the Organismal and Evolutionary Biology Research Programme and run the Helsinki Urban Rat Project. You also write a blog, teach at the university, develop high school teaching materials and take an active part in discussing topical issues on Twitter.
Which project has taken up most of your time recently?
"Currently the most time-consuming task I have is communication on the COVID-19 pandemic. On some days, it takes up nearly all my working hours. This spring, I’ve also worked on a very laborious biology course – revising the course plans also took quite a lot of time. In our Urban Rat Project, we were joined by a new postgraduate student, so the time I have for research is devoted to their research plan. However, last night I had some spare time to chase some rats in a grocery store – so I still have some time for field work!"
You have taken a public position in how the government and the Finnish institute for health and welfare handle the COVID-19 epidemic.
How much has the epidemic changed the focus of your work? Do you find that you have been listened to?
"A lot! The ongoing pandemic takes up most of my workdays. The change happened quickly, when the situation in Italy deteriorated in the end of February, and I published a blog post on how the pandemic was about to begin. After that, I have been giving between two and eight interviews a day. I found this quite surprising as I am not an epidemiologist or a virologist, and my research is focused on pathogens and parasites.
I quickly came to the realization that it must be due to there being few virologists and epidemiologists in Finland, especially experts that would be in contact with journalists. There are few scientists who are open to take part in science communication, and those who do partake end up being overworked. Science communication requires an efficient way of communicating what you know and what is outside your expertise. Knowing your own field and having a network of colleagues helps, as I now know who I can refer journalists to if I have hesitations about answering a question.
I have been particularly surprised by the attention I have received. Besides journalists and MPs, people working in the private sector, particularly those managing store facilities, have been in contact. You get the feeling you are doing something important."
You wrote in your blog that the COVID-19 epidemic will be affecting our everyday life for a long time.
What connections do you see with the COVID-19 epidemic and the sustainability crisis?
"I research animal pathogens and parasites. It may just be that when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail – but for me, zoonotic pathogens – that is, pathogens transmitted from other animals to humans, pandemics caused by them, and the changing relationship between humans and animals are all a key element in the sustainability crisis. I do like the concept of One Health, that our health is linked to animal health and to the environment. Diminishing natural habitats have driven humans and wild animals closer together. On one hand, this increases the risk of growth in wild animal pathogens to the extent of inter-species transmission. The loss of biodiversity and zoonoses walk hand in hand. On the other hand, another source of zoonotic pathogens is the industrialization of animal agriculture – for example, different influenza viruses spread this way.
When the virus starts spreading among people it’s about how we people can stop the spreading. This requires prepared and resilient societies."
What can the society learn from this crisis and how does it affect the sustainability revolution?
"At least we’ll get extremely interesting data on how different countries handle the crisis from the central governance reactions to the resilience of societies and individuals. The data can tell us a lot about our capabilities and how we can prepare for future threats.
Another significant feature is the fact that this crisis shows us that many of things we thought were impossible are instead possible. Uusimaa is now closed from the rest of Finland which felt like a crazy idea two months ago when China announced their restrictions. This is of course at the same time a threat and a possibility: both positive and negative development is possible after this. My own wish is that after this we will understand how important it is to see the wide picture of human health which includes both the state of our environment and the resilience of our societies."
Have you experienced that science has been taken into account in solving this crisis?
"I have a feeling that the role of science has grown. Many governments want to highlight that they are making decisions based on recommendations from public health experts. It is, in any case, problematic if the process between knowledge making and political decisions is not working properly. In this case we actually have a new kind of situation: political decisions are postponed or not done due to the lack of information.
As a researcher I’ve been especially pleased to see how fast and efficiently the global scientific community has acted. Research efforts have been quickly oriented towards the ongoing situation and researchers process epidemiological information and creates models fast. We are in a stronger position in collecting data and creating scenarios than we have been in any other similar situation before."
What would you say to those researchers who would want to make a stronger impact in the societal decision-making with their research?
"The Finnish society is quite small and tightly networked. This is both a threat and a possibility. On one hand it is easy to get attention in society but on the other hand the decision-making networks are pretty small.
In a crisis it’s good to be swift: if you recognize your own expertise in a fast-changing situation you can make a big impact in a short time. As a warning it’s good to remember the limits of your own expertise: a crisis is not the right moment for trying to get publicity. In a crisis you should really focus on how the society can benefit from your actions."
Tuomas discuss in his blog Kaiken takana on loinen (only in Finnish) changes which the COVID-19 epidemic has caused and how the future might look.
In the next news story we ask research workers how the remote work has succeeded and how it could be improved.