Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen: Natural sciences are solving global problems

The coronavirus pandemic has elevated science, as well as the awareness of our inability to tackle the crisis without science, to fresh prominence. The role of the natural sciences in particular, including chemistry, biology and mathematics, has been highlighted during the pandemic.

It is fantastic to witness how scientists are, under enormous pressure, achieving results which would normally take considerably longer. In a month or so, Chinese researchers had identified the RNA genome of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, while mathematicians all over the world have continuously been modelling the progress of the epidemic. At the same time, virologists, immunologists, biochemists and chemists have been developing coronavirus diagnostics, vaccines and drugs.

Solutions through cooperation

Another matter the pandemic has made clear is the uncertainty and multitude of views associated with the conduct of research. As new knowledge is gained, specialists have had to revise their prior notions and increase collaboration with each other. In fact, the international cooperation of scientists is at the core of beating the pandemic. Such cooperation requires open sharing of data and a shared goal. Viruses do not recognise state borders, and it is in the interest of all countries that the coronavirus crisis is overcome globally.

The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of cooperation between universities and businesses, particularly in the field of vaccine development. Businesses depend on basic research conducted in universities, which enables private companies to focus on their areas of expertise in vaccine development, such as clinical trials and the mass production of vaccines.

Right at the onset of the crisis, researchers of the University of Helsinki demonstrated admirable social responsibility, offering their expertise, research capacity and equipment to public and private operators. The list of the help offered by scientists is long and impressive.

Basic research conducted in universities lays the foundation for new discoveries, technologies and innovations made in the chemical industry and bioindustry. The coronavirus crisis is part of a broader global challenge where we have to find solutions to the loss of biodiversity and to climate change, both threatening the Earth as a whole. We are on our way to a carbon neutral world, but getting there requires large-scale technological and societal effort.

Investment in research and product development needed

Investing public funds in research and product development, also in the period of financial scarcity that will follow the coronavirus crisis, is important. The regeneration and growth of businesses, and the resulting economic growth, are founded on novel innovations and technologies. Cooperation between businesses and universities plays a key role in this.

To pull through the crisis, a small nation such as Finland has no other option but to invest in expertise and research of a high international standard. The natural sciences are central to solving global challenges. Together with other fields of science, such as the social sciences, they will establish a solid basis for the management of global crises and the prevention of new problems.

Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen is director of the Finnish Bioindustries association and chief advisor of the Chemical Industry Federation of Finland.

Why do we need science?

The world and the needs of people and the environment are changing at an ever-accelerating pace. None of us can predict which research will be useful in 2050. What we do know is that solving these future challenges requires long-term research.