Eva-Mari Aro: Unexpected test results often generate new knowledge
In experimental research, completely unexpected results often open just the right doors for generating new knowledge and for applying it to produce applications and innovations to benefit society at large.
I am examining new, creative long-term research from the perspective of studying the operating mechanisms of nature. This is research where we simply cannot set any expectations for outcomes.
In the course of evolution, nature has come up with the most wonderful ‘inventions’, but uncovering these through research is impossible if society insists on focusing research funding on the potential for short-term gains. Yet through the ages we humans have been leveraging the solutions and operating mechanisms that nature has come up with on her own accord for new knowledge that has in turn largely facilitated the development of society as we know it in the first place; and this is even more vital for our future. Achieving new scientific breakthroughs requires constant improvement of research equipment, cross-discipline consortia and flexible collaboration. Research funding must also be scaled for the long term.
Research to discover new knowledge requires humility from the researcher, because the research process itself constantly exposes the limits of our knowledge. Often these limits are highlighted by completely unexpected research results for which a rational explanation must be devised. This requires the building of a new research strategy around the issue, and in the best cases this can lead to a paradigm shift in our thinking and to a replacement of old beliefs with new theories, not to speak of the potential for developing new applications to benefit society at large. New scientific breakthroughs require tenacious and curious exploring minds and an ability to create and maintain confidential collaboration networks at home and abroad.
Solutions to society’s challenges
If it had not been for long-term research spanning several decades, we would not have vaccines and would not be on the threshold of resolving today’s most acute global crisis, the coronavirus pandemic. In my case, my research has for long been overshadowed by crises in the climate, environment and nature; climate change in particular has guided our photosynthesis research over the past 15 years towards finding applications consistent with sustainable development, yet without forgetting the need for continuous success in basic research.
Photosynthesis is the process that produced all the fossil fuels that exist on our planet, the fuels that continue to power the world economy even today while expelling vast quantities of the carbon dioxide bound by photosynthesis over millions of years back into the atmosphere. Today, everyone is aware that we must abandon the use of fossil fuels quickly and replace them with clean, renewable energy and other non-fossil raw materials. In order to curb climate change, we must also replace carbon-intensive infrastructures with emission-neutral options.
The response of the international photosynthesis community to this problem has been to search for ways in which photosynthesis, whether natural or artificial, could be accelerated so as to replace fossil fuels. Robust international basic research in photosynthesis lends confidence in this matter.
Finland is at the cutting edge of this development task, an achievement facilitated by two back-to-back Centres of Excellence funded by the Academy of Finland (2008–2013 and 2014–2019) together with our Nordic Centre of Excellence, NordAqua (2017–2022), where several industrial partners are also involved. We are reinforcing the blue sustainable bioeconomy by leveraging the capacity of photosynthetic microalgae and macroalgae to convert the visible light of the sun into energy-rich carbon compounds. The algae also recycle nutrients and remove impurities from water.
A sustainable production value chain is being developed. This will make use of the unique properties of photosynthetic microalgae and macroalgae, boost their photosynthesis and build ‘living cell factories’ using synthetic biology methods, customised to generate clean fuels and chemicals. We are building this value chain jointly with businesses.
Our research is multidisciplinary, and we promote interaction in various areas of society at large, for example among policymakers, NGOs and private individuals. Our aim is to engage these various parties in cooperation to ensure that the blue bioeconomy will emerge pursuant to the true principles of sustainable development. The focus is on training new, high-quality experts not only for research but also for a wide variety of duties in industry, NGOs and administration.
The ability to envision and to turn research into applications
The societal impact of research is, at least in the case of the natural sciences, rooted in breakthroughs made in basic research. Without exception, such breakthroughs are the result of long-term research, which should be recognised as valuable for its own sake and which should thus have its own, defined pool of public research funding. Also, even in basic research the research teams need to involve individuals with a special gift for envisioning potential practical applications for the research. The expertise of such researchers occupies the middle ground between basic research and applied research.
It is generally agreed that such research is hampered by a shortage of funding, even though there are already several public funding options available for research whose findings can be relatively rapidly translated into applications of practical benefit to society at large. Yet it is a fact that involving basic research expertise in research groups working on practical applications would significantly boost the effectiveness of those groups. Industry should provide support for the transition from theory to practice and, specifically, should take full responsibility for the scaling up of research findings into production use.