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Discussions between researchers and decision-makers – Saumakohtia dialogues of strategic research

14 Dec 2021

In the Saumakohtia (translates as ‘junctures’) dialogues, researchers and politicians discuss current affairs in the light of new research. The aim is to provide decision-making with the latest research findings, but also to build longer-lasting networks for cooperation. At their best, the Saumakohtia dialogues deepen our understanding of the ways politicians and researchers perceive great societal challenges and the potential solutions to them.

What is the objective of the Saumakohtia dialogues?

How to pass on researched information to aid decision-making and how to advance the dialogue between scientists and politicians are essential questions in strategic research programmes. The aim of strategic research is to produce well-researched information to support policymaking. Facing these same questions is the organisation Forum for Environmental Information (FEI), whose aim is to encourage dialogue on environmental issues between producers and users of knowledge. A few years ago, FEI carried out a survey for decision-makers on how they would like to be informed about research, and especially face-to-face discussions with researchers were much appreciated (read more about the FEI survey here, in Finnish). This was the inspiration behind the birth of the Saumakohtia dialogues.

Based on the concept of Forum for Environmental Information, strategic research began the Saumakohtia dialogues as a social affairs and health themed pilot in Parliament in 2019, and other current themes have also been offered as topics for discussion. Politicians have also been able to suggest themes for discussion. Existing research on the requested topic produced in the strategic research programmes is a prerequisite for the organisation of a dialogue. Since 2015, the Strategic Research Council has funded 78 projects from 19 differently themed programmes. At the end of 2021, there are 11 ongoing programmes with 48 extensive and multidisciplinary projects. Thus, research is available on several themes relevant to today’s politics.

The Saumakohtia dialogues are intended to generate discussions that continue after the meeting and to forward researched information to decision-makers (read more about the Forum for Environmental Information's guide to Saumakohtia dialogue, in Finnish). The dialogue is built to provide a confidential space for researchers and politicians to discuss topical affairs in the light of latest scientific data. A confidential space is best reached when discussions are held with the members of one specific party at a time, so the politicians won't have to debate ideologies with one another.

The Saumakohtia dialogues hosted by strategic research have formed into fruitful discussions between research and decision-making. Different parties have brought forth well-informed questions in advance, which, combined with the multidisciplinary approach of strategic research, has made it possible to approach the issues from the perspectives of many different fields of science.

How are the Saumakohtia dialogues carried out?

Each dialogue is prepared by a strategic research programme director, whose programmes explore themes and develop solutions to those questions about which politicians need information. A Saumakohtia dialogue is prepared as a joint operation of several strategic research programme directors, thus making it even easier to recognise the right projects and their researchers and to assemble as multidisciplinary a team as possible on the topic of the dialogue.

The Saumakohtia dialogues are usually attended by circa three researchers, who present an approximately five-minute introduction to the topic at hand. The researchers may present a few slides about their research, but the main focus of the dialogues is quite naturally in the joint discussions. This requires courage to break away from data and presenting one’s research design, ability to trust one’s expertise, and daring to throw oneself into discussion. They must simultaneously stay in their role as a researcher and recognise the limits of their expertise. After the introductions by researchers, a conversation facilitated by the programme director is held. 90 minutes has proven a suitable duration for the dialogue, as this allows for a relaxed and conversational atmosphere.

A good dialogue awakens the politicians’ thirst for knowledge and also produces questions to which the best expertise for answering is not always present during the dialogue. In fact, the politicians are often later presented with additional information and contact details of researchers, so they can continue familiarizing themselves on interesting topics.

The Saumakohtia dialogues support the deepening of understanding

The feedback on Saumakohtia received from both researchers and politicians has been positive. Politicians have especially appreciated the opportunity to talk directly with researchers and to ask them challenging questions. The researchers, on the other hand, have deemed it particularly useful that they have been able to share their own research with politicians and to familiarise themselves with the ways politicians approach societal challenges.

In addition, the researchers’ understanding of the information and its different forms needed by decision-makers in their work has also increased. Both parties of the dialogue get to acquaint themselves with the codes of conduct and conversational habits of the other party in a situation that is as safe as possible for both. At its best, the Saumakohtia dialogue increases our understanding of the ways politicians and researchers perceive the great challenges in our society and the potential solutions to them.

The Saumakohtia dialogues may act as a starting point for future cooperation networks and as a channel through which politicians can acquaint themselves with both the programmes of strategic research and the researchers working on them.

Eurosaumakohtia and online dialogues

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Saumakohtia dialogues of strategic research have been conducted via remote connections since March 2020. The latest round of the Saumakohtia dialogues has been carried out with Finnish Members of the European Parliament. The inspiration for Eurosaumakohtia came from strategic research programmes that wanted to provide Finnish MEPs with researched information on the current affairs of the EU in an interactive way. Forest and biodiversity strategies and Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF) regulation featured heavily in the topical discussions of spring 2021. The topic was highly politicized and MEP's regardless of party background felt strategic research to be a reliable source of information, so the proposal for discussions was well received.

Over all, decision-makers in both the EU and Finnish Parliament have reacted positively to suggestions for dialogue. According to politicians, there could be even more direct contact from researchers. One Member of Parliament said that this was the first time researchers had contacted them and asked to discuss research. 

Dialogues conducted through remote connections pose both possibilities and threats. Conducting remote meetings is quick and easy. Remote meetings have opened a whole new channel for societal impact of research with, for example, Members of the European Parliament. Before the coronavirus, it would have been quite the jackpot to get several Finnish MEPs and researchers to hold a conversation in the same space.

Remote connections made flexible participation possible regardless of location, but also brought on interactional challenges. The Saumakohtia dialogues are based on authentic interaction and trust. Creating a shared space and understanding is more difficult in remote meetings where participants don’t have their cameras on and their attendance is unsure. Nevertheless, digital Saumakohtia have, at least partially, come to stay. However, interaction and active participation in digital environments must be developed in the future so that digital dialogues would work even better for all participants.

A new round of strategic research Saumakohtia to begin at the Parliament

In the beginning of 2022 a new round of the Saumakohtia dialogues will begin with the parties at the Parliament. In December 2021, the offices of parliamentary groups will receive a dialogue invitation from the Division of Strategic Research. In choosing the topic for discussions, the offices of parliamentary groups will be asked to utilise the new Ratkaisujatieteesta.fi website of strategic research and to choose the most topical themes for them and to outline questions about the societal challenges in question in advance.

The parties will be presented with new themes arising from research that today's politics may not have yet addressed, but research has already recognised as challenges of the future. After agreeing on the topics and questions of discussion, the programme directors will begin to form a group of suitable participants from strategic research projects to take part in the dialogues and answer questions.

Much research is available on the projects of strategic research that can be used in, for example, the planning of party platforms and government programmes. We hope that politicians will accept the Strategic Research Council’s request for dialogue!

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