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‘Strong dialogue with the scientific community is of key importance’

20 Dec 2017

An important part of the Academy of Finland’s work is to maintain a full and vigorous dialogue with the scientific community, says Leena Suurpää, Vice Chair of the Academy Board. Suurpää sees the Academy Board’s role as a science policy influencer that fosters open dialogue with researchers and societal forces.

“Any influencing of science policy must be founded on a strong dialogue with the scientific community at large. This is where we as members of the Board of the Academy of Finland can serve as bridge-builders,” Suurpää says. The Board spends a lot of time deliberating on how data and knowledge can be translated into capital for society. One tool that does this is the Academy’s report on the state of scientific research in Finland.

“I particularly like the part of the report that says that the societal impact of science and research is closely linked to improving our understanding of the world and enhancing the level of civilisation. In my opinion, impact isn’t just about improving practices or offering recipes for policy-making; it’s also about radically broadening our views of the world.”

Suurpää thinks the state of scientific research in Finland is firmly based on the people, the researchers and the scientific communities. She therefore welcomes the current trend of viewing science policy as a human activity.

Work at the Finnish Red Cross offers chance to put research to good use

Suurpää is Director of Youth Shelters at the Finnish Red Cross. She previously worked as Research Director at the Finnish Youth Research Network, and she has been a member of the Board of the Academy of Finland since 2014.

“I like to think that I haven’t given up doing research. Now, I’m putting into practice the reserve of data that I’ve amassed during 20 or so years of working in youth research. Research is always present in my line of work. In today’s world, being a leader comes with a requirement to be able to use existing data responsibly. I feel privileged to be in a position where I can make use of research knowledge in my daily work.”

Suurpää’s interests have always been devoted to young people, intergenerational relationships and multiculturalism, and to phenomena and solutions related to equality and inequality. Her own line of research involves areas such as civic activity, youth policy and youth work.

In addition to serving on the Academy Board, Suurpää has held many important positions of trust such as in the preparatory working group of the Youth Act, the discrimination monitoring group of the Ministry of Justice, the boards of civic organisations and foundations, and the evaluation processes of European youth and culture policy. She has also served as board member of the Unit of Education at the University of Tampere and as editor and editor-in-chief of the international youth research journal YOUNG.

Influencing science policy is an important task

According to Suurpää, the Academy Board views the scientific world broadly, analysing the position of scientific knowledge in modern society all the way down to the daily lives of researchers. Maintaining wide dialogue opens the door to critical thinking. She praises the Academy’s Administration Office and its expertise in supporting the Board in its work.

Suurpää sees the Academy fulfilling two important roles: The first, more distinct role is that of a funding agency for science. This role is now more comprehensive than before. Today, the Academy also grants funding to scientific organisations, whereas before the focus was more on individual projects and researchers. The other role is that of a science policy influencer and actor.

“This second role is extremely important and interesting, but at the same time very intense – the position of science is a controversial issue today. On the one hand, all decisions in society have become ever more evidence-based; on the other hand, it has become increasingly common that scientific data and researchers’ expertise are devalued. Ever more people are vying for the position of expert, and the self-evident authority that used to flow from the scientist’s status as expert has eroded.”

Suurpää has contributed to influencing science policy, for instance, through her work on various committees where she has been involved in preparing legislation and non-discrimination mechanisms as part of the operations of ministries and civic organisations. This kind of influence, she says, is just as crucial as playing a visible scientific advisory role in the media.

Stiffer competition may improve community spirit among researchers

When it comes to researchers and research funding, the demand exceeding the supply is both a threat and an opportunity, Suurpää says. “It’s an opportunity if researchers are able to discover innovative solutions and carry out research also by transferring to expert positions outside academia. Researcher training must be provided on a broad basis and it must prepare researchers for work both in academic communities and in major advisory roles in society. We still have a long way to go in that respect.”

Suurpää argues that this issue also concerns research careers, as the reward and review system is based on a presumption that researchers transfer from one research position to the next. In the future, we will need more versatile researcher career paths, because the funds available will not be enough to keep all researchers in academia and because the increasingly complex world will require researchers’ expertise in dealing with the demanding tasks that lie ahead.

At its best, Suurpää says, the increasing competition in research could also lead to an increased sense of solidarity and community among researchers. However, she draws attention to the fact that the competition may also cause harm to solidarity and instead increase isolation. Since science is a collective activity, this might weaken the status of science. “Personally, I wish that the tougher competition will lead to a stronger scientific community. I only hope that smaller research communities, such as youth research, will fare well in this race.”

Another important science policy issue, according to Suurpää, is what kinds of threats or risks are related to the freedom of research. “I’ve spent some 20 years on researching themes that involve emotive issues such as multiculturalism or racism, and I can empirically say that the conditions in which research is conducted have become less and less secure. It’s an issue of great science policy relevance, I think, how we guarantee researchers’ ability, willingness and courage to highlight controversial, difficult issues over which many remain silent, and how we support them in conducting unprejudiced research.

Original text in Finnish and photo by Leena Vähäkylä

Last modified 11 Jan 2018
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