Value of Science in Finland Today

This is a response to the recent letter by Kati Järvi (‘Yliopistojen on omaksuttava yritysten toimintamalleja’ direct translation – ‘Universities must adopt business operating models’, 2.10.15) in Helsingin Sanomat. Another article by Jaakko Kauko and Ulpukka Isopahkala-Bouret (‘Säästöt murentavat yliopiston perustaa’) has also given an exellent response to the Kati sentiment. Researchers in the University of Helsinki have also finally prepared a manifesto on the funding problems: Please use Google translate. It is sufficient to understand the jist of the articles.

Jussi Helminen, Jesus and Myself have contributed to a response to Katis article and the general sentement that the value of science is related to its short-term financial benefits:

“When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer, but I suppose that was exactly what I did”.

Perhaps Alexander Fleming never realized that in just those two sentences he was not only describing his discovery of penicillin but he also was providing a perfect example of the random driving forces that underlie every single major scientific breakthrough and the scientific praxis at its best. Indeed, the discovery of penicillin started the era of antibiotics in the 1940s, which coincided and also nurtured a series of advances worldwide, giving rise to a medical revolution. This was a tremendous development in the history of mankind that, for example, resulted in a two-fold increase of human life expectancy in western countries. Literally billions of lives have been saved. Whilst it is quite difficult to provide an accurate estimate of the gigantic economic impact of scientific breakthroughs, like Fleming’s, one can directly and unambiguously establish a historic correlation between the frequency of such discoveries and the practice of high academic and scientific standards within stimulating and cooperative intellectual environments: Indeed, namely higher education centres such as Universities.

The message, interpreted as delivered, by Kati’s article is misleading and naive. That is that Universities should become more business-like with process-related goals rather than freedom to make serendipitous discoveries. Unfortunately for Finland, recently policy-makers, with little knowledge about science itself, will buy this hook, line and sinker.

There is of course truth in Kati’s message – If there is no funding for academic research then resources need to be consolidated – but what is left out is unforgivable. For the decision makers this ‘consolidation’ should not be an option if they want to keep effective scientific discovery rolling. Kati unfortunately does not mention anything about what the best solution should be, which is rather to support the universities. This leads to better education and increased output of scientific discoveries. If the government wants to reform the universities they should make efforts to improve the performance in other ways than cutting off funding and increasing beauracracy.

The current ‘western’ higher education model was conceived in very different circumstances to those existing today. It has been understood for thousands of years the merits of allowing freedom to investigate. The benefits of the business model approach are short-sighted, short-term and completely inappropriate for universities. They directly castrate the capabilities of universities to make completely fundamental and serendipitous discoveries that will lead to new scientific breakthroughs. And, also deprive young students from that inspiring and diverse intellectual environment needed to develop their abilities, ultimately condemning the most promising of them to emigrate to those countries such as the US, Germany, Switzerland or even Sweden, where this debate was closed decades ago. This is exactly why industries like pulp and paper are in trouble. While, engineering old processes can still make new business, the old must eventually be replaced by the new.

Another fine example among many, of the benefits of ‘random’ research, is the development of quantum theory. This was developed around the turn of the last century by the likes of Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Planck and many others. No applications were envisaged during the development of their hypotheses about the very small. Yet, understanding of quantum theory has enabled the current revolution in IT and modern computing. Companies such as Nokia would not have survived and fallen without this development. In a recent article in New Scientist (‘Breakthrough prize billionaire wants scientists to be heroes’), Yri Milner, who established the ‘Breakthrough Prize’, even quotes that “Twenty-five per cent of the world’s GDP originates from quantum mechanics“. Clearly the short-term moneymaking potential of science is not a good meter for the actual value of scientific work.

Yet another perfect example to illustrate the value of science arethe developments that have arisen through the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) of the United States of America. NASA was created and publically funded with no commercial process envisioned. Yet, the scientific, technological, engineering, military and humanitarian advances developed through NASA have been simply astounding and far-reaching. Giant leaps have literally and metaphorically been made. Ironically, the concept of technology readiness level (TRL), which is used in the business world to assess the maturity of technologies for application, was actually developed in NASA.

These developments are the thin end of the wedge.

The main message in Katis article, that Universities should adopt more defined process goals to maximize the value of the funding, is already adopted or being adopted in Finnish Universities. The Universities developing a ‘strategy’ for each faculty, department or laboratory best achieve this. This however should not limit the freedom to study topics that are completely unrelated to any process. It should be up to the existing researchers and recruitment workers to gently and considerately steer the research in the direction of the strategy. Forcing researchers to adopt ‘process, product or business models’ will completely stifle our ability to make serendipitous discovery and to some degree innovation. Many Finnish technical universities already go further than this and work on strategic technologies. This is important but there must be room for more fundamental work and within the technological development there must be sufficient overheads to follow new phenomena, which are discovered during the technology-related projects. Painting all universities with a broad brush is a mistake. This includes how different universities or institutes are funded.

Many would argue that university funding should be completely strategy free. I feel this is also shortsighted. There must be methods of focusing people towards available resources. Developing strategies is a good way of doing this without making the research too bureaucratic. However, there must also be research that is completely unrelated to commercial applications and over the whole spectrum of science. Historically science has developed nationally according to available resources and existing business. For example, during the industrial revolution Great Britain had developed a strong textiles industry and associated industrial chemical science to support this industry. The main feed stocks were, for example, flax, imported cotton and eventually chemical pulps. At the same time Germany developed strength in organic chemistry to support the production of textile chemicals and dyes. The largest chemical company in the world is Badische Anilin- und Soda-Fabrik (BASF), which translates as Baden Aniline and Soda Factory. Aniline and soda (sodium salts) are both chemicals used in textiles production. The point is that there must be a pragmatic balance on where funding is allocated. Finland as the largest availability of woody biomass per capita worldwide so naturally this is the niche that Finland should vigorously pursue. However, all areas of scientific development are needed to identify new phenomena and support strategic research. Nothing should be excluded.

The problem is the lack of understanding of science by public, politicians and business people. The origins of this lack of understanding, compared to other countries, may somehow lay in the rapid development of Finnish industry post-war, lacking the rigour of long-term scientific development. This however is a separate discussion.

The fact that government money is short does not bear on the issue at all. Funding should not be taken from science if Finland wants to remain competitive over the long-term. Researchers should not spend one third of their time chasing potential sources to fund their work, as it is happening right now. This should be the only rational decision. To make this decision politicians should be better informed about science and have stronger conviction, rather than pandering to the masses. Likewise, people should not vote for the weak-minded they should vote for those who make the tough decisions required to mend the system. This of course means that money must come from somewhere but otherwise things will only get worse for the future generations. Reformation of the system can of course save money and maximize efficiency. The trick is to avoid killing the opportunities for serendipitous discovery and inspiring new students. This takes a certain degree of freedom. Bureaucracy, while useful to an extent, severely restricts opportunity for new discoveries if applied in excess.

Traditionally, one of the key missions of Universities was allowing discovery to happen without restriction. Why change thousands of years of tradition now?