Why research matters

After a major crisis, social structures and norms are in a state of flux. The road ahead is blurry and uncertain. We are on the hunt for the building blocks of the future, looking for research-based knowledge, skills and innovations to pave the way forward.

Universities have helped society develop through the decades and centuries. A hundred years ago, influential Finnish academics played a key role in building the newly independent state. In the post-war period, Finnish universities served as engines of production and regional development. In the 1990s, the Finnish state sold some of its assets and invested considerably in research and science. This helped the country recover from a period of economic recession, while contributing to the success of Finnish companies such as Nokia.

However, no one – be they researchers, politicians or members of the public – can predict what kind of research will be needed to meet societal needs decades from now. The sustained efforts of researchers investigating coronaviruses and zoonoses are now bearing fruit when the results of years of dedicated basic research are being applied in practice.

My background is in aerosol research. Aerosols are suspensions of particles in a gas. When I was a young scientist, the dominant view in aerosol research was that small particles cannot be generated naturally in the air, but only through emissions. However, we researchers are by nature curious, so we decided to put this ‘truth’ to the test. We began particle measurements at the Hyytiälä Research Station and soon found that new fine particles are created continuously and naturally in the Finnish forest air and elsewhere.

This discovery has increased our understanding of the climate and its changes, and has led to the establishment of several professorships, Centres of Excellence and spinoff companies. Our research has made a major contribution to society – by accident.

Scientific freedom and sufficient funding for basic research ensure the high quality of work done at universities. Universities are like the welfare state or the National Emergency Supply Agency in that they improve our country’s resilience and help us manage crises. Without multidisciplinary research and education, we would be unable to deal with crises and their consequences. That is why research matters.

 

The writer is the Chancellor of the University of Helsinki.