There are cases where it is easy to identify and explain how science has touched the world. This is particularly true if the research produces a new gadget or product.
It is especially amazing if the innovation then becomes a commercial success, like pulled oats. That is a recent success story. Food scientist Reetta Kivelä and entrepreneur Maija Itkonen developed a Finnish, ecological plant protein that helped boost the breakthrough of plant-based ready-made foods. The product that had been developed in the University’s laboratories became a major phenomenon, even though it was practically unavailable on store shelves.
What are some other concrete products created by science? Researchers establish new companies, research groups file for patents, and new drugs enter clinical trials. The Nobel-winning AIV fodder; Linux, the operating system that runs millions of Android phones as well as many supercomputers; Lingsoft, a pioneering speech synthesiser; the groundbreaking cancer treatments developed at Meilahti – all of these innovations first saw daylight on the University of Helsinki’s campuses.
There is a tendency to consider research impact to be the same thing as commercial viability. This could unnecessarily drive a wedge between basic and applied research.
In her book The Entrepreneurial State, economist Mariana Mazzucato emphasises that basic research is the source of both scientific creativity and brave new ideas. When basic research generates an innovation, it tends to be fairly impressive.
The internet is a technology based on basic research. The insides of an Apple iPhone were largely the result of publicly funded basic research. Nevertheless, championing basic research on the basis that it may generate commercially successful innovations is a little distasteful. Perhaps we should ask people who actually do research work for a living.
THE BEST FOR EVERYONE
A large group of researchers, NGO representatives, government officials and nature conservationists met in Australia in November 2014. The World Parks Congress, organised by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, aimed to discuss how the world's network of conservation areas could be expanded from 11% to 17% of the total landmass by 2020.
The conference was well under way when Tuuli Toivonen, associate professor in geoinformatics with researcher Federico Pouzols and their group published an article in Nature which offered some additional information for the conservation goal. The study established that the way the conservation areas are selected has a significant impact on their effect – whether the process is decided by each government individually or through global cooperation.
“If every government made the decision individually to decree 17% of their landmass as conservation areas according to their best knowledge, approximately 43% of all land-dwelling vertebrates would be protected. If the selection were made on a global scale to conserve the most important 17%, approximately 61% of land-dwelling vertebrates would be protected."
This information changed the statement made by the Congress. As the areas of highest biodiversity are not spread out evenly across the globe, international cooperation was emphasised in addition to national efforts.
The study changed the world, as it was intended to.
“I get excited at the prospect of research directly influencing decisions being made. On the other hand, I don’t think that all research has to be like that. Basic research is at least as valuable, and its later value is impossible to estimate,” says Toivonen.
WHY DO WE NEED IT?
When funding is granted to research, it is expected to yield a benefit. When public funds are allocated to research, there is at least an implicit assumption that it will benefit society – however we define “benefit” in a given context.
Last October, the University of Helsinki's Chancellor Thomas Wilhelmsson called the Mihin tiedettä tarvitaan (“Why do we need research”) social sciences seminar. The seminar was organised amid cuts to university funding, the Prime Minister’s derisive comments about academics and Minister of Finance Alexander Stubb's quip about professors who spend most of their time on vacation.
In his opening speech, Wilhelmsson expressed concern about the decreasing value of knowledge and expertise:
“We have been asked whether the ideal of research-based decision-making will be replaced with research being directed by politicians.”
The concern relates to the new research funding model, particularly the new "strategic funding" model in which research funding is allocated to fields in which decision-makers most need help from the academic community.
This could also be seen as a positive thing for research.
“In a way, this is wonderful. It’s heartening to hear that politicians want researchers to provide input in the decision-making process," says Tuuli Toivonen.
During the past few years, her research group has been drafting open methods which can be used to survey accessibility to help with zoning, for example.
“We’re trying to create methods that will enable the production of better, more justified knowledge. All of our methods are open, so their results can also be openly evaluated.”
Methods created by Toivonen’s group were used in the development of the recently confirmed master plan of the City of Helsinki. Their tools have been used to model the accessibility impacts of changes to the transportation system.
“We researchers are a little nervous when our results are directly applied to decision-making," Toivonen laughs.
WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT RESEARCH?
The Academy of Finland’s State of Scientific Research report from December identifies four sectors of social impact for research. The two sectors which are the easiest to understand are dubbed “Science as a source of wealth and wellbeing” and “Science as a basis for decision-making”. They pertain to research which has immediately evident, verifiable or concretely visible impact.
Philosopher Uskali Mäki studies research, and believes that research impact is no simple matter. It is a very complex concept which often features in public debate in terms that are downright damaging.
“We must get rid of the illusion that research impact is always measurable, particularly in terms of monetary value, or apparent in the short term for individual studies,” Mäki emphasises.
The fact that the concept is complex does not mean we should not talk about it. In fact, in-depth analysis of the concepts of research is an important service mission for Academy Professor Mäki and his centre of excellence. The research on science has an impact on both science and society, as it influences the self-comprehension of science as well as science policy.
“If we understand impact as a benefit that satisfies a need, then science can be thought to provide the benefit that satisfies the fundamentally human need to understand. From that perspective, philosophy is the discipline with the most impact,” says Mäki.
Scientific curiosity is an integral component of research, and mostly, research has an impact inside the academic community. Research is built on research – it debates, tests and corrects itself. Social impact and impact within the academic community may be in opposition, as it is impossible to research everything.
“If funding is increasingly focused on preordained research questions, the field covered by research questions may become narrow enough to prove dangerous to science itself," Mäki states.
Even though superficially, research could be thought to have more impact if it seeks to solve a highly defined, high-priority problem, things are not quite that straightforward. Uskali Mäki points out that research results always open new questions, and studying these questions paves the way for creativity and scientific exploration. Academic freedom and the self-direction of research maintain a vibrant scientific community at the forefront of our society.
PRACTICES IN THE HUMANITIES
Inkeri Koskinen, a philosopher of science, studies practices in the humanities – the fields which often struggle to justify themselves as "useful".
Should we just admit that some disciplines have more impact than others?
“People often talk about how Steve Jobs studied calligraphy, and use it as justification for the existence of the humanities or other seemingly unproductive fields. I think that says something important about how narrowly we understand research impact,” Koskinen muses.
The most obscure sector of research impact identified in the State of Scientific Research is the one that describes science as the wellspring of worldviews and edification. According to Koskinen, one big problem is that even the best researchers in the humanities are not particularly good at explaining why their research field has impact, is useful and deserves funding.
“It’s easy to only talk about impact in terms of specific research fields, and not so easy to express the ways in which the humanities impact all of society. Research impact means different things for different fields.”
There’s even a term for the disadvantage plaguing the humanities: hermeneutical injustice. Broadly speaking, this means a situation in which there is no language for expressing a thing that is vitally important for a group of people.
For example, the humanities are described as useful because they teach critical thinking. However, the humanities have very concrete impacts on society.
“At the moment, most Hungarians do not believe that Finnish and Hungarian are related languages, as their school curriculum states that their nation descended from the Huns. The invention of a glorious past has a direct impact on what is politically possible. Correspondingly, the free and critical study of history has a concrete and direct impact on the state of society,” says Koskinen.
HOW TO MEASURE?
Ultimately, research is very much a part of culture. Scholarship means a worldview, popular works, decisions, teaching – and language.
In 1831, the Finnish Literature Society was established in Helsinki to boost Finnish as the language of education and high culture. The first secretary of the Society was Elias Lönnrot, who created the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. At the first meeting, the decision was made that all minutes would be written in Finnish, partially to prove that the Society itself did not doubt the suitability of Finnish for their literary pursuits.
The matter turned out to be not quite that simple. The minutes of only the first four meetings were written in Finnish. The lexicon of the language was too narrow for high erudition, and Lönnrot himself soon left Helsinki to become a physician in Kainuu in eastern Finland. It wasn’t until 1861 when Swedish was fully replaced by Finnish.
Even the Finnish word for science, “tiede”, was created by Volmari Kilpinen in 1842. Lönnrot coined the word for literature, “kirjallisuus” around the time when the Finnish Literature Society was established, in the early 1830s.
Inkeri Koskinen points out that many researchers worked immensely to ensure that Finnish could be used to express anything. Finnish had become a language of edification.
The most tangible example of the impact of the humanities is that it has been possible to write and read this article on research impact in Finnish. This would not be possible without the linguistic efforts of our scholars and the extensive, free scientific research conducted in our universities in Finnish.
The impact is obvious, but it cannot be pinpointed to a particular historical event, breakthrough or discovery. This is fairly common of humanities research areas.
“How could we measure the value of the fact that we can speak in Finnish? The question makes no sense,” Koskinen says.
Science has hit a rough patch in the United States. Officials are turning a deaf ear on the natural sciences and their message of environmental crises, energy production or the evolution of our species. But this does not mean that science has stopped working, or that the quality of American universities has suffered.
Finnish research is also doing well. Aerosol researchers, intellectual historians, ethnographers, etymologists, genetic researchers and geoinformatics experts – and the philosophers who consistently succeed very well in international university rankings – are involved in research and dialogue in the academic world, and are shaping the way people understand the world and help them live better.
“Science is the best way we have of finding out about the world. It is a comprehensive, long-term project that produces more human benefit than anything else. In terms of its practices, it has the most robust moral core of any of our institutions,” states Academy Professor Uskali Mäki.
THE NEW AND THE PROFICIENT
And then we have the youth. In an interview from 2008, then Chancellor Kari Raivio described having an insight – that the most important duty of the University is to educate students.
Teaching based on science and research constitutes the fourth sector of research impact in the State of Scientific Research, which describes science as a force creating professions.
“Students have always been an important part of our research group. When they enter employment outside the University, they will take a scientific way of thinking with them,” exclaims Tuuli Toivanen, associate professor in geoinformatics.
Companies and government agencies employ geographers and political scientists, hospitals employ doctors and schools teachers. Science means that there will always be a new generation of proficient citizens.
This article was published in Finnish in the Y/01/17 issue of Yliopisto magazine.