Arto Mustajoki: new approaches could transform science

23 Jan 2019

Arto Mustajoki is one of the longest-serving members of the Academy of Finland. His career ended at the turn of the year, when a new Board was elected for the Academy. Prior to this, Mustajoki had served as the Chair of the Research Council for Culture and Society, the Chair of the Board of the Academy of Finland and a member of the Academy Board.

Mustajoki’s career is impressive both in scientific terms and in respect of science policy and administration. His first administrative position was that of the Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Helsinki, which he accepted after a professorship in Russian language. Mustajoki’s deanship was followed by his first full-time role as Vice Rector in 1992. Mustajoki spent the last years of his university career serving his second term as Dean. He retired two years ago.

Mustajoki says that he has always been critical of the current system of governance: “At some point I realised that it’s easy to shout opinions from the backbench without taking responsibility yourself. Universities need to play their part in society in a way that factors in the policies of ministries and the views of politicians. I try to see the best way to move things forward. Instead of shouting out, we need to establish a dialogue.”

Mustajoki would like to see universities abandon the idea that decision-makers need to learn to understand academic language. Instead, universities should learn to understand decision-makers’ interests and speak their language. This has been Mustajoki’s goal both in his own actions and his research.

Equality is key in research council work

After his term as Vice Rector, Mustajoki was elected Chair of the Academy of Finland’s Research Council for Culture and Society. In that role, he tried to promote equality between all scientific disciplines, as not all of them could be represented in the Research Council. He also took steps to find out whether this would affect access to funding. It turned out that it would not. Involving several different branches of science was also seen as an obstacle to securing funding at the beginning of the new millennium. This turned out not to be true either.

The use of international reviewers began to become the norm during Mustajoki’s chairship of the council. National research subjects such as Finnish history, literature and language also became subject to international review, the justification of which has often been debated.

“These disciplines also need to use internationally accepted methods. Researchers in these fields need to be able to sell their findings to other countries,” Mustajoki explains, calling attention to the importance of knowing your audience. If you want to promote your discipline in a global arena, writing in Finnish is not very ambitious. Educational articles aimed at the general public are a different matter.

Mustajoki was the Academy of Finland’s first chair who was also a research scientist. An international review had been carried out at the Academy, based on which the Board was restructured so that the Academy’s president, who had previously acted as chair, became a presenting official and the chair had to have a background in research. The chairs of the research councils were no longer members of the Board, although they retained the right to attend its meetings. Membership of the Board was also extended to individuals from non-scientific backgrounds.

The Academy Board no longer decides on individual grants but formulates broader policies, such as the funding opportunities available from the Academy. Mustajoki believes that these decisions nevertheless have a huge impact in the longer term.

Impact of science must be understood broadly

Confidence in the Academy has increased especially during the term of the current president, Heikki Mannila. Mustajoki believes that this is true in respect of both ministries and researchers.

The Academy has been given new, important mandates. Mustajoki attributes this to, among other things, the Academy being one of the best in the world to process applications. The new mandates include funding strategic research and the profiling of universities, granting key project funding and funding a flagship programme.

One of the future challenges foreseen by Mustajoki is defining the impact of research. “My motto has been that science that has a practical use cannot be a bad thing. After all, the Academy of Finland is the only funding agency that sponsors what we call basic research in Finland. The Academy cannot begin to evaluate applications based on how soon they lead to benefits. Everyone knows how difficult it is to determine how benefits materialise. Often it takes years and sometimes decades. The impact of science is a useful concept, as long as it’s understood broadly. It’s about more than just instant economic rewards.”

“One way in which science can have an impact is to influence the way in which people see the world. People’s world view affects the way in which they behave, which in turn has an impact on how society functions. The media play a big role in this, but the scientific community feeds information to the media. These things have a bigger impact on society’s success in the long term than individual innovations.”

According to Mustajoki, young researchers in particular want their research to serve a purpose. The key project funding scheme was a good example of this: the Academy received almost 600 applications.

What if there was a better way to promote science than through publications?

Finnish science has changed since Mustajoki first became involved in science policy.

“Finnish science has evolved, but it’s important to remember that we’re a small contributor on a global scale. In respect of internationalisation, there are still new kinds of challenges ahead: we need to think about whether the Academy should make its funding even more brazenly available to researchers in other countries who’d be prepared to come to Finland if given the funds.”

In Mustajoki’s opinion, peer review, which is the cornerstone of everything, also needs to be re-examined from a new perspective. He wonders how well experts understand the innovativeness of research and whether they are bold enough to propose funding to those whose views differ from their own. How can science be reformed, as the Academy of Finland and the leading European funding agency, the European Research Council (ERC), want? And what kind of role will cutting-edge scientific journals play in the future?

“I wonder whether they will be replaced by blogs and other new formats. Science could progress more quickly if we began to ask others to comment on our ideas instead of going through the slow and complex process that precedes publishing them in scientific journals.”

The current buzzword in science policy circles is open access. Mustajoki points out that open access as a concept has already been around for 20 years. He feels that some progress has finally been made in that respect. But how will publishing evolve?

“Open access is a good thing, but there are many naïve perceptions associated with it. One such perception is that it’s free. Paying for open access, on the other hand, breeds inequality. Some people think that open access to scientific publications means that decision-makers and members of the public who aren’t part of the academic community can also read them. This is completely unrealistic, as most scientific publications are too difficult for even researchers of closely related fields to understand. For science to have an impact, researchers need to package their findings in a concise and understandable format.” However, Mustajoki wants us to remember that, for the time being, having an impact within the scientific community still requires publishing articles in esteemed scientific journals or appearing at scientific conferences and other such events.

Original Finnish text by Leena Vähäkylä

Photos by Kari Likonen

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