Should research always be “useful”? A case for fundamental science, by Sophie Reichert

Picture of author Sophie Reichert

Sophie Reichert
TCSM Collegium Researcher
Ecology and Evolution Biology

This question came up with a friend and fellow researcher recently. She had just given a public lecture on her topic of research in ecology and was asked why her work was important /relevant / useful. As researchers this is quite a recurring question from people, especially for those of us working in fundamental research. Fundamental research is usually a curiosity driven investigation; most of the time, it is motivated by a gap in knowledge about something. Quite simplistically, in opposition to fundamental research is applied research, which in theory focuses on filling a need established prior to the start of the project. More basically, fundamental research wants to elucidate “why is this phenomenon important”, whereas, applied research will focus more on “how can I use this?”. Given these descriptions, applied research seems more valuable, especially since resources and efforts are often limited—after all, applied research attempts to offer practical solutions to some of the most pressing issues, including epidemics, food shortages, pollution, etc. But, as stated in (UNESCO, 2015), “basic science and applied science are two sides of the same coin, being interconnected and interdependent”.

Unfortunately, the viewpoint that applied research is superior / more valuable than fundamental research is prevalent and quite common. As most part of scientific research is funded by governmental grants (i.e. public funds), public opinion has a very strong influence and gives great importance over the allocation of funding to and in science. As a result, when fundamental research is perceived as ineffectual and/or frivolous, this perspective influences legislators and funding agencies to reduce funding to fundamental research. Continue reading

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Root Vegetables in Times of Uncertainty: The Howling Miller’s Vegetable Patch by Avril Tynan*

Fresh Vegetables. Credit: ConstructionDealMkting. (CC BY 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/41608186@N06/4463639314.

‘To be rooted’, wrote French philosopher Simone Weil in The Need for Roots, ‘is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul’ (2002, 40). Writing at the height of the Second World War and shortly before her death, Weil argued that human beings need both material and moral nourishment for life. Food, housing, and heating, for example, may fulfil our physical needs but are not in themselves sufficient conditions for the optimal life of the soul (Weil 2002, 6). Human beings also require the balanced satisfaction of opposing needs: both order and liberty, for example, both security and risk (Weil 2002, 11). When a human being is uprooted, as Weil suggested was both the cause and the consequence of the tragic events of the first half of the twentieth century, she is cut away from a community and thus from the ‘treasures of the past and […] expectations for the future’ (2002, 40). This deracination is particularly prevalent in the brutal actions of war and colonialism, but also more subversively in modern capitalism and the dogmatic pursuit of economic gain (Weil 2002, 41).[1]

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NOT, ketterä teleskooppi, kirjoittajana Erkki Kankare

Picture of author Erkki Kankare

FT Erkki Kankare
Kollegiumtutkija, TCSM
Fysiikan ja tähtitieteen laitos

Covid-19 pandemian aikana sosiaalisten lähikontaktien vähentäminen on tärkeää koronaviruksen leviämisen ehkäisemiseksi. Turun yliopistossakin henkilökunta on yhä pääsääntöisesti etätöissä, jos se työtehtävien puolesta on mahdollista. Aikaisemmin keväällä parin kuukauden ajan päällä oli kattavampi “lockdown”. Tutkijoille koronavirukseen liittyvät rajoitukset vaikuttavat tutkimusaineiston hankintaan mitä erinäisimmin tavoin. Omalla tähtitieteen alallani tukimusdatani on havaintoja ammattilaisteleskoopeilta. Tutkimukseni keskittyy niin sanottuihin tähtitieteellisiin transientteihin, havainnoillisesti päivistä vuosiin kestäviin ilmiöihin, jotka liittyvät täydelliseen tai osittaiseen tähden tuhoutumiseen, kuten supernovaräjähdykseen joka päättää tähden elinkaaren. Supernovaräjähdykset ovat hyvin kirkkaita ja niitä voidaan tutkia muista galakseista. Johtuen supernovien verrattain nopeasta evoluutiosta niiden tutkimus vaatii toistuvia monitorointihavaintoja verrattain usein muutosten seuraamiseksi yli pitkienkin aikaskaalojen. Täten supernovien havainnot hyvin tyypillisesti tehdään ns. “service” muodossa, jossa teleskoopin henkilökunta suorittaa havainnot tutkijoiden valmistelemien tarkkojen ohjeiden perusteella – näin siis jo ennen Covid-19 pandemiaa. Continue reading

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Second waving – and (not) drowning? A Finnish social scientist “reflects” by Liisa Lähteenmäki*

Liisa Lähteenmäki is in the final year of her TIAS post-doctoral fellowship. Here she offers some whimsical reflections on the bypassing of social realities when contemplating the Covid-19 outbreak.

During the summer, the corona pandemic almost obeyed “the Trumpian wet dream” of disappearing in Finland – the entire country had only a few new cases and no further deaths occurred. In the fall, as universities, schools, play-schools and day-care centres started to open their doors for yet another semester, concern over the second wave of Covid-19 mounted as new cases were confirmed at an accelerating speed and both local health-care specialists in the Turku area and the national health officials cautioned about a possible second wave of the epidemic.

During the pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion of the risk and manner of contagion, about safe distancing, washing of hands and sneezing properly. A lot of the information and discussion has revolved around epidemiological issues, something which is of course self-evident. But as a sociologist it seems to me this epidemiological “takeover” of public discourse has somewhat distracted us from noticing the cultural and social factors in the spread – or rather in the attempted prevention – of the disease. I mean, the virus is the same everywhere, but social reality is not. Let me clarify a bit.

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Fieldwork in biology during the COVID-19 pandemic by Antoine Stier

PhD Antoine Stier
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Ecology and Evolution Biology

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has a strong impact on our everyday life, forcing us to adapt both our personal and professional lives. Many academics now face the challenges of getting used to remote working, but many tasks remain impossible to conduct from home. While essential empirical work can still be conducted within research premises in most Universities, conducting work outside the laboratory (i.e. in the field) incurs some specific challenges. Biology researchers within the University of Turku  are not only conducting fieldwork in Finland, but also in various places around the world ,such as in South-America for studying the Amazonian forest, Myanmar for studying Asian elephants or some remote French sub-Antarctic islands (Crozet Archipelago) for studying king penguins in my case.

While many countries cancelled most fieldwork-related activities last spring (an unfortunate timing considering that many field activities are restricted to a narrow time-window during this season), we have been relatively lucky in Finland to have the possibility to conduct minimum to normal fieldwork activities thanks to a relatively quiet COVID situation and support from our institutions. However, conducting fieldwork abroad has mostly been cancelled and is continuing to be cancelled (for very valid reasons), incurring the inevitable loss of precious data. Continue reading

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Motivation across a transition by Heta Tuominen

Collegium Researcher (TIAS) Heta Tuominen

Once again students have returned from summer holidays back to school and started their academic years. Some of them (including my daughter, by the way) are starting off their sixth, that is, the final year in elementary school and, thus, approaching the transition to lower secondary school (grades 7–9). Studying young people’s motivation and well-being in school is, in my view, always relevant, but could it be especially important across such an educational transition period in early adolescence.

Yes, it seems so. Previous studies show that an overall negative change in academic motivation takes place during early adolescence and that this decline is most pronounced during educational transitions. Also, negative changes have been seen in adolescent students’ school-related well-being. That is to say, educational transitions can indeed pose a risk for adolescents’ academic motivation and well-being.

In our recent study (Tuominen, Niemivirta, Lonka, & Salmela-Aro, 2020), we looked precisely into this by investigating 1) what kinds of motivational profiles can be found among sixth- and seventh-graders, 2) how do these profiles change across the transition from elementary to lower secondary school, and 3) how they are linked to well-being, in this case, school engagement (how engaged a student is in schoolwork) and school burnout (how exhausted, cynical, or inadequate a student feels in relation to school demands). Continue reading

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Pohdintoja tutkijanuran vaiheista, kirjoittajana Teemu Niiranen

Henkilökuva kirjoittaja Teemu Niirasesta, ylävartalo ja kasvot näkyvät.

Dosentti Teemu Niiranen
TCSM kollegiumtutkija
Kliininen laitos, sisätautioppi

Lääkäritutkijan uralla otetaan monia askelia, joista kaikki eivät aina välttämättä tunnu askelilta eteenpäin. Kliinisen erikoistumisen jälkeen yleistietämys omasta erikoisalasta on parhaimmillaan, minkä jälkeen aletaan usein keskittymään hallintotehtäviin sekä yhä kapeampiin lääketieteen osa-alueisiin. Tutkijan uralla tilanne on usein samankaltainen. Väitöksen jälkeisen post doc -jakson lopussa tutkija on usein tehokkaimmillaan, kun hän pystyy oleellisimmat tutkijan taidot opittuaan keskittymään 100-prosenttisesti tutkimustyöhön.

Mikäli tutkija kuitenkin perustaa post doc -jakson jälkeen oman tutkimusryhmänsä, työpäivän sisältö ei yleensä olekaan enää entisen kaltainen. Varsinainen tutkimustyö, eli ainakin omassa tapauksessani datan tuottaminen, analysointi ja raportointi, onkin muuttunut loputtomiksi puhelinkokouksiksi, budjettien laatimiseksi ja henkilöstöhaasteiden ratkomiseksi. Continue reading

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Turku Medieval Market: researcher and popular history by Reima Välimäki

https://mail.utu.fi/owa/service.svc/s/GetPersonaPhoto?email=rsmval%40utu.fi&UA=0&size=HR96x96

Reima Välimäki, postdoctoral researcher, TIAS

Like the previous blog post, https://blogit.utu.fi/collegia/2020/06/05/explaining-quantum-physics-with-arts-and-games/ my text discusses outreach: a part of a researcher’s work that might not be rewarded as a curriculum activity, but which is extremely rewarding in itself.

I am a medieval historian. Some of my research has been a very technical study of medieval manuscripts, their authorship, dating and provenance. Fundamental research, but not stuff for popular books. Yet, in addition to that, I have always felt that an academic historian’s duty is, in addition to research and teaching, to be an expert in the service of society. This means that one must be able to a certain extend to step outside one’s comfort zone, the narrow research area in which one publishes their journal articles.

For me, such an opportunity has been Turku Medieval Market, an annual medieval fair at the heart of historical Turku, in the Old Market Place near the Cathedral. It is the oldest and largest event of its kind in Finland and with its ca. 150 000 visitors one of the major summer events. Of course, not this year. As I am writing this, the Medieval Market is taking place online due to the COVID-19 restrictions. If you want to check it out, the programme is available also after the event days 25–28 June: http://keskiaikaisetmarkkinatverkossa.fi/

Image 1: Medieval Market attracts every year well over 100 000 visitors from Finland and abroad. Photo: Sami Maanpää/Keskiaikaiset markkinat

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Explaining quantum physics with arts and games by Matteo Rossi

Author Matteo Rossi faces forward infront of a blackboard. Head and torso are visible.

Author PhD Matteo Rossi
TCSM Postdoctoral Researcher
Turku Quantum Technologies group

This post is about one aspect of our job as scientists that we often tend to neglect or avoid as much as possible but plays a very important role towards the society: outreach. Outreach is a challenging task, as it requires us to rethink our everyday work from the perspective of someone completely new to the topic, to communicate the relevance of your research engagingly, to explain in a few minutes concepts that you learned in years of studies and training.

Some topics are particularly challenging, as they are so far from common experience. With these, the hardest part is to find a way to give an intuitive description of the phenomena that happen, and this is exactly the case I’ve been facing in explaining quantum mechanics.

Quantum mechanics was formulated a century ago to explain the physics of the microscopic constituents of matters, such as atoms, molecules or photons. While it is a clear, sound mathematical construction, that can predict experimental results with high accuracy, it is well known for being a difficult topic to understand. Continue reading

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Pandemic Mothers by Helena Duffy

Collegium Researcher Helena Duffy

More than ever I am surrounded by my ‘Holocaust mothers’ (the focus of my TIAS project). I used to get a break from them by going to conferences, writing articles on unrelated topics, or even going to the swimming pool. I loved my Finnish lunch. Early and boundless. And, unlike anything else in this country, affordable. And followed by a cup of coffee. Well, actually two cups of coffee. A stroll by the river. Then another cup of coffee at the main library. Coffee, proximity of books and sense of my own anonymity were so conducive to writing.

But things have now changed and I am mostly stuck at home with the ghosts of women wearing 1940s dresses and hairdos and fussing over their children. They are in my kitchen making gefilte fisch or kugel. They are working with margarine in the absence of butter, replace double cream with condensed milk. They chop liver. They make the best noodles in the world. They still observe the kosher rules and the Shabbos and take pride in being able to feed their families with the little that there is to feed them with. Continue reading

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