”It’s time we listened to young scientists”

Helsinki Challenge speakers Ian Scott and Celia Hannon believe in a profound remodeling for universities. We can no longer afford to maintain academics who isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

Ian Scott is pretty impressed. The reason for this is University of Helsinki chancellor Thomas Wilhelmsson’s speech, in which he has just called Helsinki Challenge a unique initiative.

”It’s inspiring to hear a top university leader say that. Our world is changing so much that we need cross-disciplinary science now more than ever”, Scott says.

Helsinki Challenge, a year-long science-based idea competition celebrating the 375th anniversary of the University of Helsinki, has reached one of its highlights of the year. Twenty semifinalist teams have gathered at Kirkkonummi, coastal Finland, for a two-day bootcamp.

Maximizing the impact

Scott, who gave a talk on co-creation and cross-disciplinarity as a way to maximize the impact science has on society, is principal facilitator at University College London’s Grand Challenges, which means bringing bright minds together to solve huge problems that our world is facing.

UCL is a pioneer in using the challenge model, as is NESTA, an independent charity working to increase the innovation capacity of the UK. Their Centre for Challenge Prizes programme manager Celia Hannon agrees with Scott.

”The strength of the challenge model is bringing all kinds of unlikely suspects to rally around a challenge.”

Unique open-endedness

A unique characteristic of Helsinki Challenge is open-endedness. Picking a winner won’t be easy, Hannon points out.

”With this much variety, it can be like comparing apples and oranges. The winners must have a real understanding of their problem, and they should have shifted that understanding during the challenge process. Having a spillover impact beyond the project itself is also important.”

Funding for pre-work

Working with the challenge model has a downside, too, compared with doing classic grant-funded academic research, since it means bearing some of the financial risk yourself.

The Helsinki Challenge teams are doing pre-work without any real funding. Great pre-work might lead to great rewards. Scott and Hannon suggest some kind of pilot funding for scientists willing to risk it.

Millennials running the world

Both experts foresee a fundamental remodeling of universities in the near future towards a more problem-solving and challenge based research approach.

”We can no longer afford to maintain academics who isolate themselves from the world, even the vulgar. They need a skillset to communicate your research to people outside their own field.”

It’s also vital to listen to young people and the next generation of scientists, Scott says.

”In challenges like adapting to climate change, we have milestones five, ten, or 15 years from now. Millennials will be the ones running the world then. If we don’t listen to them now, we’re missing a huge opportunity.”