On Excellence

By Tuomas Forsberg

The stated mission of the Helsinki Collegium is to carry out high-level research in the humanities and social sciences. Given this key purpose, it is essential that in the international research assessment of the entire University of Helsinki in 2019 that focused on the past decade, the Collegium received the grade of “excellent” for both the quality of research and the research environment. As excellence ought to be recognised by others, it is important that what we say we are aligns with what we do.

So I would like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessors and all our former fellows who have contributed to this success.

We may, of course, ask how excellent is “excellent”. Something would be terribly wrong with the concept of an institute of advanced study if the Collegium were not recognised as a better research environment than teaching units and if the quality of the research environment did not translate into quality of research. However, following the academic good practice of doubt and self-criticism, there is no justification for resting on one’s laurels. Even excellence can be improved.

Societal impact from the bottom up

The Collegium received the grade “very good” in the assessment of societal impact. “Very good” is not a bad achievement but already literally a very good result. Yet, given the available resources, to what extent can we realistically improve our societal impact without also jeopardising our excellence in research? Many institutes for advanced study worldwide have reckoned that the old idea of the “usefulness of useless research” is not sufficient. Accordingly, they have started to pay more attention to societal impact to meet the expectations or even demands of the authorities, funding bodies and sponsors.

The Collegium’s visibility and outreach have emerged both locally and internationally. For example, it has been active in social media, through blogs and in public events organised at the new Think Corner of the University of Helsinki and streamed worldwide.

Speakers of the spring 2019 Kollegium Talks on Think Corner Stage

Public Kollegium Talks event “Unexpected turns in research paths”, with Erkko Professor Jane Cowan, Core Fellows Michael Langlois and Emilia Mataix Ferrándiz and Research Coordinator Kaisa Kaakinen on the Think Corner Stage, March 11, 2019 (Photo: Minerva Juolahti)

However, probably the best way for the Collegium to foster societal impact is by facilitating the activities of its researchers. Just as the research carried out at the Collegium is bottom-up by nature, so should its societal impact be. Given that Collegium researchers are exempt from major administrative and teaching duties, they can in fact address new topical issues much faster of their own initiative as well as find more time for societal interaction. Many researchers already know how they can reach out to the relevant audiences. In addition, some researchers are better positioned for societal interaction than others. Moreover, research and societal interaction are typically sequential, since impact is based on research that first has to be carried out. Therefore a kind of division of labour should apply to institutions. Given the diversity of fields and issues represented at the Collegium, it is not easy to identify a core audience other than those interested in knowing what is going on and what is new in academic research in the wide sense.

Can impact be measured?

Societal impact, while definitely important, is difficult to measure reliably. In fact, attempts to do so, particularly when it affects funding directly, may lead to unintended consequences. As is well-known, measuring the societal impact of academic research is difficult because that it may take a long time before the impact becomes visible, and it is often impossible to attribute the impact of scientific knowledge to particular research outcomes. A related question is whether we should reward research that could or should have had an impact, but has failed to have one. Politicians and other decision-makers still make choices on the basis of their preferences and they may discard the scientific evidence. What if we reward outcome, in other words research that has had impact, but for reasons that may have nothing to do with the quality of research? Scholars are expected to be active in the society and broaden their expertise beyond their own academic research. We should reward researchers for their societal impact based on their scholarly expertise, but it is very difficult to do so without rewarding them also for their societal impact that is based on mere civic activism. By the same token, there is no objective way of separating good impact from bad. And even if there were a clear definition of societal impact, it can remain a secret:  some of the most significant instances of societal impact – when advice is given to key decision-makers – are not meant to be publicly acknowledged.

Societal impact should definitely be part of the academic ethos that guides our research. This should not imply that research should be evaluated in terms of its short-term goal or that the societal impact of research can be measured accurately. Moreover, there is no contradiction in claiming that we should pay attention to the societal impact of research, and that we still need places where that is not the primary concern. The more universities and research institutes are required to demonstrate their relevance by addressing immediate societal concerns defined in a top-down manner, the more important it becomes that at least some institutes can focus on basic, curiosity-driven research.

Group photo of Helsinki Collegium fellows standing outside on grass

HCAS Fellows and staff in September 2019 (Photo: Veikko Somerpuro)

Tuomas Forsberg has been the Director of HCAS since August 2018.

This article has also been published in the HCAS Newsletter 2019-2020.

On population genetics, emotions, and entangled differences

Venla Oikkonen

My first year at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies was intense, inspiring and rewarding. While starting a new research project on cultural debates about vaccines, I had the opportunity to finish my second monograph on the cultural dimensions of human population genetics. The book, Population Genetics and Belonging: A Cultural Analysis of Genetic Ancestry, was published in October by Palgrave Macmillan. Many of the final details of the book reflect discussions I had with my wonderful colleagues in the Collegium hallways, at coffee breaks, and in our Brown Bag seminars.

As the title suggests, the book is an account of population genetics as a means of making communities, identities, and belonging. Human population genetics is a field of science that studies genetic variation within and between populations. The book explores technological practices and cultural imaginaries that population genetics has engendered in contemporary societies. For example, population genetics underlies commercial genetic ancestry tests, which promise to trace our personal roots to prehistoric communities and connect us to people who share genetic markers with us. Population genetics provides the basis for national genome initiatives. Population genetics informs the study of DNA retrieved from ancient human remains, playing a crucial role in attempts to imagine human evolution. Population genetics structures the ongoing building of biobanks, which are meant to accelerate scientific research and pharmaceutical development through faster circulation of samples and information. Population genetics is also present in the marketing of pharmaceutical products to specific ethnic communities on the basis of assumed population-level genetic differences. Moreover, population genetics has been invoked in both pro- and anti-immigration campaigns, revealing the ambivalent relationship between population genetics and politics of inclusion and exclusion.

How has population genetics become part of all these diverse projects? How can it support opposite political and social agendas? Why are the tensions and connections between these projects and practices seldom discussed? In Population Genetics and Belonging, I investigate the mutability and persistence of population genetic imaginaries by tracing shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics from the late 1980s until today. The book explores these shifts and continuities through a range of materials including scientific articles, journalism, popular science books, online genetics websites, and fiction.

Throughout the book, my analysis of shifts and continuities in the uses of population genetics focuses on two issues: affect and intersectional differences. Affect refers to the cultural circulation of emotions and the emergence of emotional intensities around objects such as genetic technologies or biological samples. By intersectional differences I refer to how technologies are entangled with assumptions of gender, sexuality, race and class, and how these differences are constituted through one another. I argue that in order to understand the potential impact of population genetics in society, we need to pay attention to how population genetic technologies shape gendered, racialized, classed and sexualized differences, and how these differences become emotionally charged.

The theory of “Mitochondrial Eve” developed in the 1980s provides an illustrative example. “Mitochondrial Eve” is the most recent maternal ancestor of all currently living humans traced through mitochondrial DNA inside our cells. Eve is not a specific woman but rather a statistical point of origins in the past where mitochondrial variation among modern humans originates. Through an analysis of scientific, media, and fictional texts, I trace how the theory of Mitochondrial Eve becomes contested, celebrated, and gradually routinized in the early 1990s. I also explore the appearance of another gendered figure, “Y-Chromosome Adam”, in the mid-1990s. While Mitochondrial Eve draws on the idea of an unbroken maternal chain between us and our evolutionary past, Y-chromosome Adam is the most recent patrilineal ancestor of currently living men traced through Y-chromosome DNA. In cultural discourses surrounding population genetics, Y-Chromosome Adam became almost immediately portrayed as Eve’s counterpart, partner, and even boyfriend. This portrayal questioned the initial cultural representations of Eve as a strong and independent woman, as well as contradicted the scientific evidence that placed Eve and Adam at different prehistoric times.

Population Genetics and Belonging shows how the figures of Eve and Adam mobilize cultural assumptions of gendered, sexual and racialized differences while traveling across science and culture. The first chapter demonstrates how the pro-feminist and multicultural undertones of the figure of Mitochondrial Eve evoked strong emotional responses in science journalism, mainstream media, popular science, and fiction, and how some of the underlying cultural anxieties were alleviated through heteronormative narratives involving Adam. In subsequent chapters, I ask what happens to these emotionally charged differences when mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA is used in commercial genetic ancestry tests, ancient DNA research, or debates about the roots of national populations.

All in all, the book argues that genetics and emotions are thoroughly entangled: emotions shape as well as reflect developments around population genetics in society. In particular, emotions arise around cultural perceptions of how genetic accounts of human evolution may reshape social categories of difference such as gender, class, sexuality, and ethnicity. Finally, the book suggests that formations of affect and difference around biotechnologies call for critical exploration also beyond the field of population genetics.

Venla Oikkonen is Core Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her research interests include evolutionary theory, genetics, vaccine controversies, pandemics, and theoretical questions related to affect and intersectionality. Her first book Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives was published by Routledge in 2013.

TUHAT research profile: https://tuhat.helsinki.fi/portal/en/person/voikkone