Olli Vapalahti's speech for J.V. Snellman Award

Olli Vapalahti:

The End of History was suggested to be occurring – as introduced by Francis Fukuyama’s famous book some 30 years ago – in that liberalism and democracy had won, or seemed to be winning. The big battles and confrontations between capitalism and communism would be over, as heralded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the remaining existence of mankind would consist merely of the rational management of prosperous societies. A peaceful, efficient and dull future was to be anticipated, with the globe turning gradually into a benign village forever interconnected through a web of travel, trade and manufacturing chains.

Even prior to this, medicine seemed to be declaring a victory in another battle against infectious diseases. Vaccinations and antibiotics had overcome the microbes threatening mankind – or at least threatening the Western world. The President of the American Association of Medical Colleges declared in 1986:

There would be little role for infectious disease specialists in the next century, unless they would spend their time culturing each other.

It is easy to look back now and say that these predictions did not age well. But can we do better now? Looking back just 15 months – did we see a pandemic coming? The interconnected world helped to spread it, and  Western societies in particular took many incoherent and irrational routes along the way, plagued by contagious misinformation spreading like a virus in interconnected bubbles blown by the algorithms of social media, built to create profits for companies and their advertisers.

The pandemic and efforts to control it have brought to the surface many fundamental values and questions which we have to address. Individuals or society? Freedom or health? Money or life? Young or old? Trust or control? Local or global? And the toughest question of all: short- or long-term interests? And what are they?  Can science and research provide answers? Can the media convey those answers? Who or what should we believe?

As the Nobel laureate André Gide said: “Believe those who seek the truth, doubt those who have found it.”

Research and knowledge are never complete. It is good to share our knowledge and communicate it, but equally important is accepting that we do not yet know something. Having said that, educated guesses and preliminary results are also needed to fill the gap between the slow academic publication process and the rapid turn of the news cycle in the middle of a fast-moving pandemic. You may have to comment on matters on the fringes of your research field, or even outside it, and information abounds also in countless preprint versions of articles yet to be peer reviewed; observing great care is advisable when on thin ice, but overviews that transcend discipline boundaries are needed too.  

Without research, our measures to tackle the pandemic would be mediaeval – although in the Middle Ages, this pandemic would not even have registered alongside other infectious diseases. The last coronavirus pandemic before this one occurred most likely in the 19th century, which we have to thank for the coronavirus that causes the common cold.

The global world that enabled the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic has also brought about the global scientific community, which has quickly come up with solutions through collaboration.  Research should not be a skiing competition where individual countries compete against each other, though some shoving may occasionally be seen in the final stretch – even in the field of science.

National and supranational coordination in research related to the pandemic is necessary, and resources are needed also in Finland. Today, there is no need to justify the necessity of investigating slightly peculiar infectious diseases. At this point, I wish to offer my thanks to our funders for their contributions, and for the J.V. Snellman Award, a wonderful acknowledgment. I also wish to thank my research group, collaboration partners and my co-recipient as well as my family and friends for their hard work and understanding. And for their perseverance. I am humbled by this.

With the spotlight on coronavirus research, it is good to note that many important fields have been left in the shade. Not only in terms of resources, but also in terms of not being able to go to the workplace in person. As Finland has already previously lagged behind our partner countries in research investments, closing the gap now is important, as is closing the gap in education generated by the leap to the unknown, in which some people were left behind, either due to their timing or ability.

While it is good at times to find a specific focus and determine from above the needs of research within the framework of a ‘planned economy’, it also pays to recognise that we cannot know what will be important a year or a decade from now, not even by individual scientific fields. To safeguard the scientific diversity required for facing future challenges by means that cannot be innovated in any workshops today or realised in three-year projects, it is important to provide sustainable resources for high-quality bottom-up basic research that may also veer slightly outside the mainstream.

And the future is not only about threats, but also opportunities. It has always been so, but today it applies to research in particular. A rover is on Mars and an RNA vaccine has been developed in record time against an entirely new virus. Artificial intelligence has learned to predict protein structures, a task that used to take years in the laboratory. We are able to read genomes stored in million-year-old bones.

We should not be afraid of the future. Instead, we can influence it, perhaps even change it, but no one knows exactly how it will turn out. Invest in research, invest in the future – that is, the young. Soon we will be writing the history of the post-pandemic era, and that history begins now.