Science is humanity’s greatest institution, as Academy of Finland Professor Uskali Mäki has said. That’s saying a lot, with the rule of law and literacy, among others, competing for the same honour, but Mäki knows what he is talking about.
The human spirit soars highest when it pursues the understanding of the universe, nature and humanity itself. Humans wage wars and destroy nature, but curiosity expressed through science promises that we will succeed and identify solutions.
Science has created the worldview of modern human beings by bringing down our notions of humans as the absolute focal point of the universe.
Research helps assess operations
The natural sciences have been used to fly to the moon, develop vaccines for a novel disease within a year, alter the genome, manipulate the climate and peek at celestial events dating back billions of years.
At the same time, the social sciences have evolved enormously, with empirical statistical analyses in particular now making it possible to assess the effects of various reforms and political interventions.
As Mayor of the City of Helsinki, I can see the value of high-quality impact assessments. They utilise the methods of econometrics and economics, as well as the datasets continually generated by modern digital society.
Every year, the City of Helsinki spends more than €5 billion on service provision. Thanks to researchers, we know better how our operations affect the housing market, children’s wellbeing, welfare inequalities and the flow of traffic – this list could go on and on.
Concern about funding for science
Science is about the boundlessness of the human spirit, and it is an indispensable tool for decision-makers. But the practice of science is not a given in a country with an ageing population whose public funding is heading towards crisis.
Science is crucially dependent on public investment, but I’m afraid the government will be a bad principal for science and the cultivation of the mind in this and the next decade. A stingy, unpredictable and unreliable principal.
And I’m afraid basic research will be overlooked when policymakers are seeking commercially viable research and development.
Finland is a country of mercilessly organised lobbying where business life defends its interests, the trade union movement defends the current labour market regulation, agricultural producers defend their subsidies, and constitutional experts and the social welfare sector defend income transfers.
Universities and their professors focusing on basic research are not preparing for a general strike, nor do they organise tractor marches, or have trusted officials in key positions at government ministries. I’m afraid that, in spite of all the solemn speeches, science and funding for science will be disregarded as the fight for public resources in a country with an ageing population intensifies this decade.
The outlook is that, in this and the next decade, the government will be an increasingly ill-disposed and unreliable funding principal. This is why I consider it vital to strengthen the autonomy of universities[LV1] , whether through capitalisation or by improving their independent fundraising activities and capacity.
Answers to major questions cannot be found without research
Universities should be able to rapidly boost their financial independence, both by raising funds and attracting more and more paying students. The government must lay the legislative groundwork for this.
And instead of regional policy fads, science and research require increasingly large clusters and units, not the fragmentation of resources and people.
Advocates for science are needed, particularly in situations where unpleasant decisions have to be made. In the coming years, balancing public finances will require such decisions. Empty phrases will no longer suffice. Without research and science, we cannot solve a single issue crucial to the survival of humanity and Finland.
Juhana Vartiainen is Mayor of Helsinki and an alum of the University of Helsinki.
Research and education are the building blocks of our wellbeing. Investing in them is crucial for our future. Read more about the societal impact of research and education and explore the University of Helsinki’s objectives for the next government programme in 2023–2027. #ResearchMatters