Tarja Sironen's speech for J. V. Snellman Award

Tarja Sironen:

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted and grateful to receive the J. V. Snellman Award. Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has been clear that we researchers who are familiar with the virus can share what we know and explain what everyone can do to fight the pandemic. I hope this has helped people as they have struggled with feelings of uncertainty and anxiety. At this point, we are all tired, but I wish to stress that the situation is already improving thanks to the role played by science and research. Vaccines, increasing information on effective preventive measures and better treatment will gradually get us through.

I was appointed as an associate professor at the beginning of 2020, and although I was already an experienced speaker and teacher within the academic community, I had little experience of communicating to the general public. Sharing knowledge and making it accessible to the public are incredibly important elements of a researcher’s work. Research-based knowledge must be brought to the fore and applied widely. In the past year, I have received a huge amount of support from my colleagues and my employer, the University of Helsinki, and I have learned a great deal about popularising science. Science communication is a skill that must be learned, and you must accept feedback to develop as a communicator.

In the past year, I have answered countless questions that stem from conspiracy theories, misinformation and interpretations presented in publications that have not undergone the peer review process. I believe the need to defend knowledge based on research and decision-making founded on such knowledge is now greater than ever. We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. We scientists and scholars are needed in the public discussion. Such discussion is not always easy, nor is it part of every researcher’s comfort zone, but it is our job. I wish to encourage all researchers to answer people’s questions and talk about their research findings, also discussing and reflecting on the significance of those findings. Research-based knowledge should be put to use.

My own research focuses on identifying emerging infectious diseases at their point of origin, that is, in wild animals or production animals. I approach my topic from the perspective of ‘One Health’, or how human, animal and environmental health are linked. I have had the opportunity to work in a multidisciplinary community, at the faculties of medicine and veterinary medicine. The Covid-19 pandemic has further expanded my perspective, and the past year has brought with it interesting new research cooperation projects as well as contact with authorities, politicians and many sectors of society. Traditional barriers have been broken down. The past year has also taught us the value of long-term basic research – after all, it enabled us to respond quickly.

My own research will continue with the aim of finding better means to prevent infectious diseases through One Health research. We will be better at stopping the next pandemic as long as knowledge based on research, including basic research, is made publicly available. I intend to continue this work in the spirit of the J. V. Snellman Award.