The significance of science has been emphasised during the corona epidemic

The onset of coronavirus this spring has reminded us of our need for talented scientists and researchers. On the basis of the applications we received, there are a lot of them out there and more interesting projects than we could have ever expected. The applications showcased the experience of the applicants by demonstrating that they already have the ability to perceive possible research problems and the skills to plan out solutions. This is no wonder, since all the applicants had already completed a doctorate degree, which is their first significant scientific step. Now it’s time to take the next – perhaps definitive – leap ahead.

Published 3.6.2020
Blog written by Ilppo Vuorinen / Sakari Alhopuro Foundation

My intention for writing this is not to explain the evaluation of the applications, but to describe the thoughts that the process inspired and which the Foundation discussed during the spring. Which applications did the readers feel were promising scientific ideas? What characteristics did the successful applications have in common? The basic commonalities were the proven competence of the applicants, a strong research environment and a scientifically viable research topic. The topic was laid out formally in a perfect research application that covered, for example, the ethical, statistical and publishing issues. Applications that made it through the initial phase of the selection process were chosen after the assessment of these basic factors. This still left a great many extremely good research plans, the assessment of which made me consider the following points.

MULTIDISCIPLINARITY. This was reflected, for example, in the way that the applications combined medical and environmental science, or in the way that research utilising statistical data on the life cycles of people or fauna led to the emergence of environmental or ethical values with the help of the natural sciences.

TOPICALITY. This was indicated, for example, by the fact that although the application period ended about two weeks before the state of emergency began, one application already included a reference to a recent coronavirus study. Virologists were active participants in the application process, and the submissions included many studies related to virology.  Many of the applications also concerned research projects on the microbes of different species. We have gradually begun to understand the significance of microbes to humankind through the work and publications of, for example, Professor Pentti Huovinen. We have, however, only recently begun to grasp the issue in terms of ecology within the natural sciences. The field remains disconcertingly broad, since, for example, research on the microbes of plants and insects is currently still in the pioneering phase.

RESPONSIBILITY OF THE RESEARCHER. Science is not simply entertainment, like F1 racing or ice hockey – even though, of course, there is also nothing wrong with entertainment. The obligation of the researcher is not to produce as many publications as quickly as possible and in as many esteemed publications as possible. The researcher’s responsibility must include a unique understanding of the significance of their own research and consideration of its relevance to, for example, society and politics. With regard to environmental protection, the Constitution of Finland states, for example, as follows: ‘Nature and its biodiversity, the environment and the national heritage are the responsibility of everyone.’ During the assessment process, the applications that progressed the furthest were those in which the applicant was aware of the importance of their own research in terms of the environment and society. One might, therefore, say that a promising ecological study is one that also complies with the valid constitutional law and assumes responsibility for the research subject, and this is true for researchers as well.

CONTRAST. This is signified by the way in which the research stands out against the mainstream of research in general. In many instances, studies that set out to generate new concepts and research plans that intend to expand a certain scientific field prevailed through every phase of the grant assessment process. None of the application research plans dealt with COVID-19, as this topic took researchers by surprise. During this spring, however, it has been pointed out that many serious warnings about this type of pandemic had actually been given earlier, even as early as five years ago. We have also understood that the coronavirus pandemic is, ultimately, a result of one of humankind’s greatest problems: overpopulation.  The corona epidemic is, therefore, not a novel scientific issue. If the experiences of this spring have shown us anything, it is that old and new research problems are often intertwined and that truly original, novel research is extremely difficult to devise.

These are my own thoughts from this spring, not necessarily the positions of the Foundation.

 

Ilppo Vuorinen is a professor emeritus at the University of Turku. He has spent a great deal of time doing extensive research on the state of the environment and related changes. For the most part, he focused on maritime research in, among other places, the Southern Ocean and Baltic Sea. Additionally, he contributed to tick and Lyme disease research and, from the early 2000s, he led annual marine biology courses at the Archipelago Research Institute on the island of Seili.