Tommi Laitio: Useful science

The coronavirus situation has highlighted the significance of science to society. Scientists have been asked to appear on television, in newspaper stories and in meetings held by the Finnish government, to explain what to think about all of this, what we should do and what the future after this might look like. The situation has also served as a reminder of the fact that there is no single right solution, and that scientists' job is also to tell us what is currently not known.

As the borders, libraries, bars and schools closed, the coronavirus crisis initially appeared as a problem pertaining to health, law and the economy. The discussion focused on the powers of the government, infection tracing, the prevention of high mortality rates, restrictions to business activities and travel, as well as the costs caused by the crisis. Experts in medicine, law and economics were given the spotlight.

As the weeks went on, it became apparent that there was also a serious social dimension to the crisis. Phone calls to elderly people isolated at home made by volunteers in municipalities and parishes have demonstrated that forced isolation increases feelings of helplessness and loneliness. When remote teaching was adopted as the norm in schools, a marked drop was seen in Helsinki in the number of child protection reports submitted due to violence against children. At the same time, problems caused by substance abuse increased. Telephone helplines and chats offering mental health services to young people were congested, as adolescents no longer had access to the safe adults whom they usually met at their hobbies, in addition to which they lost their daily contact with their friends. Many families spent more time together than ever before, putting a strain on relationships.

Among other things, I am responsible for the public library services in Helsinki. When the lending operations were restored on Friday, 8th May, I went to see for myself the first hours of operations at the libraries in Malmi, Vallila and Kallio. A lady arrived to borrow some books, but she wanted to start by saying thanks. She dug out of her plastic bag some doughnuts, a packet of tea and a packet of coffee, handing them out to the staff. “It’s wonderful to be able to read again. Thank you for what you are doing for all of us,” she said in a quivering voice. The coronavirus restrictions are an indication of the complexity of wellbeing and freedom.

Science comes to the rescue

The prolongation of the coronavirus crisis also made a difference in terms of whose views now matter. Among other fields of science, social work, psychology, sociology, education, statistics, environmental science and social psychology joined economics, law and medicine in the public debate and as conveyors of public feelings. The discussion took a turn towards how long people can cope in the exceptional circumstances, how infections can be modelled, why people think that they personally will not be infected or what kind of significance school has as a social community.

The current exceptional circumstances remind us of the fact that we will never be able to accurately predict which field of science is in demand and which field's experts are highly sought after in society at any given time. If we learn nothing else from this situation, we should at least learn that science does come to the rescue. We have hundreds of years of evidence of how science, research and academic education have saved hundreds of millions of lives. We should learn from these exceptional circumstances that we have to safeguard the broad-based nature of Finnish research and education. We have to have the courage to trust in the scientific process and increase understanding throughout society about how research is conducted and how its results can be utilised.

To avoid ecological disaster we need all fields of expertise

Much like the coronavirus crisis, climate change requires broad-based problem-solving. Finnish universities are currently in negotiations with the Ministry of Education and Culture concerning their performance. On Sunday, 17 May, the Confederation of Finnish Industries proposed a refreshing initiative, appealing to the government for additional study places dedicated to the prevention of climate change. On the same day, Anita Lehikoinen, permanent secretary of the Ministry of Education and Culture, stated in the Helsingin Sanomat daily that when choosing the fields where the number of study places was to be increased, consideration should be given to “their ability to promote employment and capacity to generate new and creative entrepreneurship”.

I hope that the fields and degrees considered useful in terms of preventing climate change encompass a sufficiently wide range of disciplines. The problem of climate change will not be solved solely with technical and economic means. Climate change cannot be reversed unless we are able to consider another way of being happy and prosperous. Climate change will not be solved unless we come to understand how difficult giving things up is for us humans, and how uncertainty and fear make perspectives narrower. Finding solutions that are fair to different continents requires understanding and addressing colonialism and other structures of oppression. With inadequate planning, ecologically justified restrictions can undermine the position of those who are disadvantaged to begin with. Climate change will not be solved without consolidating the international system of agreements and negotiation. Climate change cannot be mitigated unless good plans have a chance of being adopted in political decision-making.

Much like the coronavirus crisis, climate change will not be solved by defining only certain scientific fields as useful for finding solutions for the future. Art, for example, is enormously important for imagining the future, as well as for processing fears and traumas. The social sciences help us understand why we often act contrary to our words or will. Mitigating climate change requires broad-based cooperation across the boundaries of scientific fields, as well as the ability of university graduates to value expertise outside their own field.

Just like the current coronavirus crisis, all educated citizens are needed to avoid ecological disaster. We should steer clear of self-fulfilling prophecies about who will be considered a useful builder of the future and who will be considered a useless burden to society.

Sustainability at the university

When I studied at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the turn of the millennium, you could graduate with a master’s degree without completing a single course on biodiversity or the carrying capacity of the Earth. Luckily, this is no longer the case. The new strategic plan of the University of Helsinki states that sustainability will be part of all educational offerings. Understanding climate change and sustainable development as well as the mutual dependence of different scientific fields must be made a compulsory part of all university degrees.

It is reasonable to also expect similar understanding of the comprehensive nature of the issue from decision-makers. The Aristotelian model of the good life offers an opportunity to employ personal skills for the benefit of your community. Each of us, regardless of our field of science, must have the right to contribute to the establishment of a more sustainable tomorrow.

Tommi Laitio is a member of the Board of the University of Helsinki and executive director of the culture and leisure sector of the City of Helsinki. @tommilaitio

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.