Speech by Tuomas Aivelo

Your Excellencies, Mr Chancellor, Mr Rector, dear vice-rectors and deans, ladies and gentlemen,

One year after I started writing my Kaiken takana on loinen (‘behind everything there is a parasite’) blog, I was asked to talk about writing a blog from a researcher’s point of view. This took me by surprise, since after having written the blog for merely a year, I did not think I knew much of anything about science communication. I was similarly surprised when I heard that now five years later I was to be awarded prestigious J. V. Snellman prize for my efforts in science communication.

This might be symptomatic: it is relatively rare that a researcher communicates systematically over an extended period whether through a blog or other means of communication. This is quite unfortunate.

But for me, the link between research, teaching and communication about research is self-evident. I cannot separate them from each other. They are all a part of producing, refining and further developing new knowledge. Creating an understanding of the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,

A few weeks ago I signed the scientific community’s letter supporting children and young people striking for the climate. The movement started by Greta Thunberg has raised questions about what is fundamental and how to make the world a better place. Is striking worth its while, and is it not a problem that valuable study time is lost because of it? Thunberg had a cutting answer to the question: “What am I going to learn in school? Facts don’t matter anymore, politicians aren’t listening to the scientists, so why should I learn?”

As an enthusiast, a part and a scholar of biodiversity, I was moved as I read Thunberg’s answer. I have grown up in this world whose biodiversity is crumbling. I am acutely aware of this. I have engaged in fieldwork in areas where environmental change is glaringly apparent. I know what deforestation looks like. Every week, I read studies about how populations of species are decreasing. I am aware of the state of the world.

The news is replete with shock headlines about yet another group of animals dying: bees, whales, lemurs, pollinators, fish, large predators, insects and migratory birds. I know this all. One news item after another dulls the senses.

Each news article alarms and shocks people, even when I do not even see it as having news value. I know all of this already. But it has become clear that not many people know about the state of biodiversity, or even care.

Here it would be easy to point a finger at researchers. Why don’t you communicate more? Why aren’t you more visible in society? Why don’t you tell the public more about your research?

However, as a young researcher only at the beginning of my career, I cannot do that with good conscience. At the university, researchers and teachers do not get ahead in their careers through achievements in communication as research publications are the most significant merit. When the competition is stiff, one has to keep one’s sight on the achievements that are measured. Science communication is secondary.

And it isn’t easy either! It requires practice, working time, learning and effort. The first hundred blog texts are only the warmup, used to practise and gather readers.

Esteemed members of the scientific community,

When I look at the list of J.V. Snellman Award recipients, I am flattered that I have become part of this distinguished group. They include, for example, Lauri Saxén, the supervisor of the supervisor of my dissertation supervisor, whose list of achievements includes being a founding member of the Tiede journal. My own achievement, having my blog hosted by the very same Tiede journal’s website, pales in comparison.

This recognition pleases me also on behalf of all young researchers: many of the doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers would like to publicly communicate and speak personally about their work. It is self-evident to them that they must share their thoughts on science and research, but they do not know what they should or could do.

Young researchers are often wary of presenting themselves as experts. If you have written two publications, do you have the right to be seen and heard? What do senior scientists think?

I would like to offer this word of encouragement to young researchers: don’t worry; in the world of science communication, your research outcomes do not amount to a hill of beans in the end. People are not interested in them, and that is as it should be, since single grains of knowledge about the world do not constitute the core of science. Science is a system to create and interpret knowledge as well as to organise our understanding of the world. Tell people what you are doing, what it is to do science. People are interested in people and what they are doing.

In my current research project, schoolchildren and upper secondary pupils collect data on the occurrence of rats within the Helsinki city region. They place track plates in various locations to capture tracks of rats and then send us photos of the plates and information about their location. My master’s thesis supervisee interviewed these citizen scientists and enquired what they had learned during the project. One of the interviewees said that during the study “maybe I kinda learned to appreciate a bit” the work it took to gather the data and perform research.

First of all, as a researcher, I was appreciative of the secondary school pupil’s careful way of expressing an opinion and avoiding hasty conclusions. “Maybe I kinda learned to appreciate a bit.” Secondly, as a researcher of learning, I understood that we are here dealing with in-depth learning. Thirdly, in a world where politicians deride scientists and other experts, appreciation of the hard work that goes into each and every research publication is a source of delight.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have had the good luck to meet academic and administrative supervisors, mentors, cooperation partners and funders, who have positively regarded my internal need to share my work and research with the world. I thank them most affectionately.

At the same time, I appeal to more senior scholars: support young researchers when they are taking their first faltering steps. Lead by example. Talk about how your research group communicates. Talk about communications. Share the responsibilities.

I also appeal to research funders: fund, encourage and ask for science communication. The cold, hard fact is that universities run on money. How you distribute research funding has a direct effect on what goes on in Finnish science.

Science has never been as needed and significant as today. We have never known as much about the world. We have never had as many researchers, and the general public’s thirst for scientific knowledge has never been greater. Science holds a unique position in the world just as long as we the researchers are ready to do our part.

I wish the University of Helsinki and everyone within it striving to produce knowledge a great day of our anniversary celebration.