Tvärminne Zoological Station arranges a doors open event September 16, at 11 am to 17 pm. Clearly, as the name suggests, the event is directed towards the greater public. For decades, the event has been arranged every 5 years, and this is true also in 2017. The timing and interval allow us to acknowledge every 5 year milestone of the station’s existence, and this year we celebrate the 115th anniversary.
Over the years, it has become clear that the station’s activities are highly interesting to our guests. In fact, each time, one of the most frequent comments is that we should welcome the public more often. As much as we would like to, we unfortunately have to point out that the doors open event ties the resources of personnel and scientists not only that day, but for weeks beforehand, when we make preparations.
Nevertheless, we of course welcome the demand! In fact, last time the demand was so great, that we had about 1 000 visitors! (Keeping in mind that Hanko has only ca 8 000 inhabitants, and the whole region roughly 50 000, this is quite remarkable – in the Helsinki region a similar demand would translate into tens of thousands of visitors!)
We can only guess why there is such a great interest in our activities. One thing would probably be that the topics we study are attractive. For instance, most people who live in a coastal town have some connection to the sea, and hence also are interested in the state of the coastal waters. Also, our research is frequently present in the media, and obviously people want to learn more. I guess our visitors also realize that there is great added value in learning hands on about our studies (from enthusiastic scientists), compared to more passive media content (who wouldn’t prefer to see a live flounder rather than just reading texts and looking at photographs?).
A further added value – which I am not sure the visitors would know beforehand – is the fact that by far not all of our study subjects are presented in media. Especially I would say this goes for basic (but high-level), curiosity driven science. Typically, such topics do not have a direct connection to, say human activity or applied environmental issues. Nevertheless, it is satisfying to see that also these topics are met with great curiosity also by our users, when presented by our motivated scientists. Specifically, I have noted that terrestrial and evolutionary topics get the exposure they deserve, although they are not typically head-line stuff in local media.
I may sound a bit defensive when I suggest that we cannot welcome great numbers of visitors more often. This of course does not take away our responsibility to interact with society in the meantime. And naturally we do! Media was already mentioned – we do not stand on our heads to be available, but it is not far away. Social media are a given. We also welcome large numbers of visitors in smaller groups annually.
But can we get better? Sure we can. Quite recently, we have started to put more effort into online data – as pointed out the state of the sea is something that attracts a great interest. This goes hand in hand with both new technologies to collect data, and with an urge from society to make data open and accessible.
This does not come without challenge, however. Even if we can attract funds to buy new instruments, there are at least three additional bottlenecks. Firstly, the instrumentation requires know-how and manpower to be operated. Secondly, the data have to be validated and refined. (Nobody does anything with just a huge amount of numbers.) Thirdly, the output has to be presented in a comprehensive way, and preferably commented upon for interpretation.
Typically, public infrastructure funds have limited or no space for the human resources needed to tackle the above bottlenecks. Here, we have taken the approach that there are also private companies that share our interest in public outreach, albeit from a different standpoint. With regards to the sea, such operators would be shipping companies and harbors, and we have also been fortunate to initialize collaboration with two companies with the sea as the common nominator – namely Viking Line and Port of Hanko. In both companies, there is an understanding on not only the hardware-demand, but also on the bottlenecks that require human resources.
Openness have other sides than meeting demands from the outside. Lastly, therefore, I would like to point out that events such as the doors open also motivate us as researchers. It is nice to shift focus sometimes, and see that our undertakings also attract the interest from the world outside. Society, I think it is called.
Text: Marko Reinikainen, director of Tvärminne Zoological Station