Engine Room Column: Biospheric research with foundation money

Whose interests are research grantees serving? Should research funders defend their grantees? Who has the authority to produce or disseminate academic knowledge? Kalle Korhonen, Director of Research Funding at Kone Foundation, reflects on these issues using the recent case of the BIOS research unit as an example.
As a gift to the 100-year-old independent Finland, Kone Foundation has established the new Kulla nature reserve in Southwest Finland. Image: Jussi Vierimaa

As Kone Foundation is a major research funder in Finland, our funding decisions are commented on not only by internet trolls, but we occasionally receive criticism we must consider more seriously. A recent example concerns the independent research unit BIOS. BIOS describes itself as “an independent, multidisciplinary research unit which studies the effects of environmental and resource factors on Finnish society, and develops the anticipatory skills of citizens and decision-makers.” The discussion on its role began in 2017, when a Forest Manifesto signed by numerous environmental scientists based in Finland was published, and BIOS had a role in the process. BIOS received its first Kone Foundation funding in 2015, when it was awarded a grant for the collaborative project The Realities and the Vision of Finland from our programme Is Finland Becoming Polarized? Kone Foundation is not the sole funder of BIOS, which also receives public funding.

Thus, BIOS focuses on both academic research and disseminating academic knowledge to the general public. This is highly compatible with what Kone Foundation may fund: we do not make a strict distinction between funding for research projects and funding for research popularization. Among our grantees are projects that focus only on research or only on popularization, but some initiatives combine both lines of work.

However, the concept of BIOS is not intelligible to everyone in Finland: some are questioning whether it is a think tank that serves its customers or a research institution producing academic knowledge. Whose interests does it serve? In September, a columnist for Maaseudun Tulevaisuus (The Rural Future), the second-largest morning paper in Finland, wrote that “BIOS, according to the academics who are critical towards it, is the political fist, funded by Kone Foundation, of the Department of Biology of the University of Jyväskylä.” But such rude conspiracy theories are rare.

Still, the question remains: whose interests do BIOS and other Kone Foundation grantees serve? I emphasized, in the reply I wrote for Maaseudun Tulevaisuus, the independence of an academic working on a foundation grant: no negotiation takes place between the foundation and the grantees on how the grantees should perform their work. The research grantees or any other grantees of the foundation do not implement the aims defined for them by the foundation. Instead, an independent foundation fulfils its own aims: Kone Foundation advances bold initiatives in research and the arts. The grantees’ aims are made explicit in their applications. BIOS, for example, performs research and develops anticipatory skills. Still, the grantees must explain to their audiences if they are presenting the results of their own research or summarising research done by others. And, in order to not promote the interests of too few academics, it is important that the evaluation of applications is diverse. The evaluators used by Kone Foundation change annually, and when they evaluate, they have a lot of say over their own sets of applications. It would be unfortunate if the same person were responsible for the evaluations for several years.

In my reply to the newspaper, I defended the funding of BIOS by saying that, in my opinion, the summaries presented by BIOS are based on academic research. But should the funder intervene if a project funded by it is criticized? Yes, we should, if the activity of a funder is called into question or misinterpreted by a respectable news source. The foundation should, however, not defend the views expressed by its grantees because it is their funder. This is something we simply do not do. But if the foundation is criticized for funding a project, we must look at the issue and occasionally defend the project if its work is well-grounded.

But who has the right to assume the role of an expert? In the discussion on the Forest Manifesto mentioned above, it has been repeated that “there are no forest scientists in the BIOS unit”, which would seem to imply that its views would be as valuable as opinions presented by anyone. This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the contemporary academic world. A scientist whose research focuses on forests does not necessarily have the title “forest scientist” but, say, “sustainability scientist”. On the one hand, new professional titles – which can seem amusing at first – can diminish the credibility of academics in the eyes of journalists. On the other hand, disciplines inevitably get new names as academic research evolves, and one cannot cling to the old names simply because they are more prestigious.

Author

Kalle Korhonen