From the Dean: Speaking for science

An alarming opinion gap is opening between the scientific community and the general public.

While in Finland scientists and their institutions still enjoy considerable trust and respect compared to many other countries, the public’s perceptions of scientists expertise and trustworthiness should not be taken for granted. The widening gap will ultimately affect both scientific progress and science policy harmfully.  Examples are provided by discussions around such topics as genetically modified foods, human-caused climate change, the safety of vaccinations and nuclear energy. As the society is facing ever more complex challenges for the wellbeing of the planet and its inhabitants, the need for science-based policy and for the trust in science, has never been greater. 

How to bridge the gap?  On one hand, public attention is often drawn to events that further erode the trust in science, such as conflicts of interest, plagiarism and unethical practice of research. On the other, the complaints from the scientific community about fierce competition and insufficient resources, although often justified, do not increase public support for science.

Speaking up for the importance of science is the only hope. In an open society, scientists have the obligation to engage with the public and to tackle also difficult and divisive questions. We need to talk to journalists, who should translate also the nature and implications of our work.  We should meet with members of the public to discuss also the uncomfortable issues, explain how science works and what the ultimate goals of our work are. 

New venues for the two-way communication between scientists and the public are provided by social media and the blogosphere. One suggestion would be to use those channels to annotate and review scientific research articles. A particularly worthy target readership for such annotated articles are high-school  and bachelor students, who would benefit from having access to research results written in accessible language.  This would demystify the scientific method, broaden the vocabulary, and foster critical thinking.

Risto Nieminen
Dean, School of Science

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