Does research have to produce innovations or provide direct solutions to societal problems?
In recent years, intense discussion on the usefulness of academic research and different fields of science has been conducted on social media, while in the 2010s the Finnish government made deep cuts to funding allocated to science.
The current trend threatens the status of basic research. According to Petri Ylikoski, professor of science and technology studies at the University of Helsinki, the goal of basic research is the accumulation of knowledge and understanding. Basic research does not, for example, instantly meet the targets set by funders.
“Usefulness is not the motivation for basic research,” Ylikoski says.
Research impact is unpredictable
As benefits cannot usually be predicted, the usefulness of research is difficult to measure.
Ylikoski posits that this is clearly evidenced in, among other things, the history of technology.
“Basic research has served as a great enabler of opportunities that could not have been anticipated.”
As examples, Ylikoski offers electricity and computers.
“Electromagnetism was discovered through basic research, yet no one was able to foresee that 150 years later the whole world would run on electricity. And when philosophers and mathematicians were developing formal logic in the early 20th century, no one knew they were laying the ground for modern computers.”
Naturally, there are a countless number of opposing examples of basic research that reached a dead end. According to Ylikoski, that is how it should be.
“When conducting basic research, you have to accept that it may not produce practical benefits or even breakthroughs related to knowledge. Not every ticket wins, but some wins can be very significant.”
Plants made a scientist abandon her expectations
The study of plants is an excellent example of how difficult it is to predict the direction research takes and the benefits it brings about.
Anna-Liisa Laine, professor of ecology at the University of Helsinki and the University of Zurich, investigates plant diseases in the wild. When collecting observational data from the environment over long periods of time, research is often conducted without any hypotheses.
“As a scientist, I of course have my expectations, but they can turn out to be wrong. Research can take a completely unexpected turn,” Laine says.
Such turns have resulted in important breakthroughs. A long-term monitoring of the network of meadows in the Åland Islands demonstrated that plant diseases were less prevalent in areas where the network was dense.
This finding goes against ecological theory, and Laine considered it so unlikely that she initially dismissed it as untrue. However, with the signal gaining in strength year by year, the research group decided to find out the cause. It was found that the immunity of meadows located in close proximity to each other was more varied. In other words, the structure of the landscape has a significant impact on the formation of genetic diversity.
“I would never have known to look for such a discovery on purpose.”
Laine finds it dangerous to make value judgements in advance on which research efforts will prove to be useful and which not.
“There is no useless research, and, by the same token, no research by itself makes a difference. Each individual new find is significant through its link to earlier findings.”
Funding pressure affects research topics
Which factors limit the freedom of scientists to satisfy their curiosity? Petri Ylikoski thinks that the financial situation of universities has in recent years become so precarious that there is now less time for basic research.
More than before, universities depend on external funding, with the interests of funders guiding the kind of research being conducted.
“The pressure is not targeted specifically at any individual elements, but it is there. Funding is linked to goals, which influence the spectrum of research projects that should even be considered,” Ylikoski says.
Anna-Liisa Laine’s research group is continuously struggling to secure funds for long-term monitoring. Such projects do not necessarily generate instant benefits, but they are irreplaceable when looking for solutions to big problems, such as the climate crisis and declining biodiversity.
Long-term monitoring data from the environment can reveal something no one is yet able to predict.
“Should the monitoring be discontinued, we will lose a signal that tells us how nature is reacting,” Laine says.
Ylikoski thinks the increase in hate speech and challenges targeted at experts, for example, on social media can influence research topics.
“Since the possibility of threats exists, scientists may gravitate toward subjects that are not thought to draw negative attention.”
Freedom to satisfy curiosity is necessary for science
Anna-Liisa Laine is currently working in Switzerland, where professors are awarded research funding that is not earmarked for anything specific. That enables research not possible in Finland.
Should the professors lose their autonomy, their work would lose its meaning.
“It’s okay to recognise deficiencies in knowledge on the societal level and try to steer research towards mending those deficiencies. Nevertheless, there has to be room for research questions originating in the research community itself too,” Laine says.
Ylikoski agrees. He points out that the freedom of scientists to satisfy their curiosity is essential to the critical exploration of things. Only through that can the institution of science fulfil its core mission, which is producing reliable knowledge.
“Basic research is autonomous and unrestricted: you have the chance to think alternative thoughts and embark on new paths. This is why a certain amount of unrestricted research not anchored to funders’ expectations or anything else is necessary.”