The Opening Ceremony of the Academic Year 2021-2022 of the University of Eastern Finland was held on 8 September on the Joensuu Campus, as well as online.
In his opening address, Rector Jukka Mönkkönen took a strong stand on the recent public debate on individual topics of research and their funding. According to Mönkkönen, it seems that too few people really understand what science and its impact are ultimately about.
“People expect to get vaccines for pandemics, seamless truths about forest use, or other solutions to whichever acute problems we may be facing. Politicians, officials, citizens and the media – both social and mass media – are eager to offer their evaluations on which research deserves to be funded and which doesn’t If no unambiguous solutions are provided or the research topic is not to their liking, it is declared that the research is worthless, its funding should be cut, and the money put into more profitable use.”
Commentators call for fast commercialisation of products, or other evidence of the impact of scientific research.
“Show me one technological innovation, one health-promoting practice, or other social progress that is not based on science and research. Examples of the impact of science, many of which aren’t visible until decades later, are all around us. Scientific research takes a long time and requires a systematic, long-term approach, and there are no quick wins. The results cannot, nor should they be defined in advance. That would be the death of knowledge and understanding.”
Mönkkönen is concerned about comments that demand each individual researcher to prove that their work results in direct benefits, either financially or otherwise, in order to secure funding.
“The freedom of research and the autonomy of science are the foundation for new knowledge, and they should also be the core values of our civilised society. Right now, these values are being challenged on ideological, political or economic grounds. Research starts from curiosity and its outcomes are always uncertain. When successful, scientific work stemming from curiosity leads to new questions, perspectives and learning. This cannot be achieved with short-term steering and fluctuating resources.”
“Unfortunately, Europe already has examples showing us where populist uproar leads. As members of the scientific and academic community, we all are responsible for defending our researchers and fostering the autonomy of science.”
Education in technology to respond to growing needs
In his speech, Mönkkönen also noted that the University of Eastern Finland will apply for educational responsibility in the field of technology from the Ministry of Education and Culture, aiming to launch study programmes that are based on the university's strengths in the field of technology and natural sciences.
“At national level, the need for education in technology is estimated to grow significantly, and there is a particular need for professionals with a higher education. According to several reports, businesses in Eastern Finland are also suffering from a lack of technological expertise.”
The plan is to launch a study programme in technical physics on the Kuopio Campus, and a study programme in sustainable materials and products on the Joensuu Campus.
“By doing this, we will also support the development of existing businesses, and the emergence of new ones, here in Eastern Finland.”
Eastern Finland must increasingly join forces
At the Opening Ceremony, Chairman and Honorary Doctor Erkki Liikanen discussed the position of Eastern Finland as a borderland between the East and the West, all the way from Heikki Kirkinen's research to today. He emphasised that the survival and success of Eastern Finland is in the interests of all of Finland and the European Union. Dr Liikanen stressed the particular importance of the University of Eastern Finland and its research.
“There is a need for successful companies in Eastern Finland, and in all of its regions. People's initiative, skilled workforce and good competitive conditions are the foundation for their development.”
Liikanen hoped that Eastern Finland would increasingly join forces.
“We need to look for what unites us and work effectively for a common cause. Minor disputes must be put aside.”
“For this purpose, a new association, the Union of Eastern Finland, has been established, and Rector Jukka Mönkkönen of the University of Eastern Finland has agreed to become its Chair.”
The aim of the Union is to bring together a broad range of actors from business, politics, science, education and culture to strengthen the vitality of the whole of Eastern Finland.
“All of us who live here and are born here are ready to play our part.”
According to Dr Liikanen, having a common, clear programme can also secure support from others in Finland and the European Union.
Curiosity stands at the core or research
At the Opening Ceremony, the Student Union’s address was delivered by Chair of the Executive Board Vesa Janhunen. According to him, the same guidelines that apply to the principles of good scientific practice and research ethics, apply to life in general.
“In life, one should not be content with the first answer or opinion, but rather process ideas patiently and regularly. It is a great moment of enlightenment to realise that the world around us, and everything happening in it, can be affected. So, be brave about trying and testing new things, you never know what you’ll find.”
In addition to curiosity, Janhunen emphasised the strength of social interaction, acknowledgement of one’s lack of understanding, and the importance of research.
“In the past days, research has been called to question, and funding granted to individual studies has been targeted. This is possibly an example of the wider science denialism that is emerging across the world, which is of course extremely worrying. But luckily, we're in the right place to fight it. Once we have learned ourselves, we can also help others to learn. That's why the university is a good place to be.”