Engine room column: Why doesn’t Kone Foundation use all its funding to tackle societal problems rapidly?

People make demands on grantmakers: one can expect, for example, that a grantmaking foundation should take faster action to combat the climate crisis or the power of capitalism. However, a funder who emphasizes sustainable funding cannot prioritize research that has an immediate societal impact over other forms of research, writes the Kone Foundation's Director of Research Funding Kalle Korhonen.

In Finland, the debate on the impact of research intensified in mid-August, when Atte Jääskeläinen, Director General of the Department of Higher Education and Science Policy at the Ministry of Education and Culture, spoke on the topic in a panel discussion. He said, “if the research community only shouts that we don’t have money, please give us money, that doesn’t lead you anywhere. You have to talk about the impact, and once you have shown the impact, and you are credible, and you can keep your promises, then come back to us. Later, Jääskeläinen specified that he meant societal impact, and not, say, academic impact.

In their response, the professors Antti Hautamäki and Arto Mustajoki emphasized that small concrete impacts can be accurately measured, but “large and significant impacts remain beyond the reach of the indicators”. They also mentioned the role of researchers as experts in, for example, reducing smoking or in the fight against the coronavirus, as well as the importance of university graduates for business life and public administration. After all, university students are taught in Finland by researchers, and teaching is based on research, now even more than in the last century. Philosopher of science Inkeri Koskinen had already pointed out the same aspects of the impact of research in humanities: thanks to research-based teaching, Finns do not imagine that their ancestors built the pyramids of Egypt, or that we would descend from the lost tribes of Israel.

When the linguist Ulla Tiililä evaluated the impact of the Kone Foundation Language Programme in 2018–2019, I wrote in the preface to the evaluation report that the foundation considers its impact on many levels, taking into account different time spans: “Research in humanities [does not] usually lead to rapid innovation, but the results of research gradually change the perceptions of university students and the general public, and ultimately the society as well”. Here I was thinking about the impact achieved by university education, for which the research funder is, in a way, even further away from the actual impact than the university. After all, a university can say that those who studied there pass on research information to society, but funders can only say that they funded research that gradually passed on to society through universities. This slow impact of research must not be neglected, even if it is further away in the future.

In addition, academics can, through their expert roles, have a more direct impact on society, and many of them want to make the world a better place quickly. This can happen, for example, when they understand the processes and schedules of societal decision-making and are able to influence it directly. One can say that such academics practice engaged scholarship (in Finnish, Minttu Jaakkola, Research Director of the Maj and Tor Nessling Foundation, has used the term “aktiivinen tutkijuus”). Engaged scholars are not just medical scientists, but an active researcher of plain language or pregnancy experiences, for example, can bring about rapid changes in how public administration communicates with the public, or how women are being treated during childbirth.

When research is active and engaged, whose impact is it then – the funder’s or the academic’s? It is certainly the researchers who set their impact goals, which are stated in their research plans. In situations like this, the foundation can often say that its funding has a faster impact. But for Kone Foundation, such an impact is not more important (or less important) than the slow impact of another research.

This appreciation of slow impact is sometimes difficult for an outsider to understand. Why doesn’t Kone Foundation invest everything in fighting the climate crisis or racism or the power of capitalism?

In Finland, there are foundations that use the leverage brought by their assets in accordance with the principles of “catalytic philanthropy” and strive to bring about rapid social change. A foundation can combat the climate crisis or reduce inequality among young people. It is a good thing that foundations are diversifying – different ways can inspire new people to use their wealth to set up grantmaking foundations and thereby promote the common good.

Kone Foundation has sought to nurture its rapid societal impact with thematic funding, such as the Language Programme, the programme Is Finland Becoming Polarized? and with the current programme called Is Democracy Eroding?. However, as a funder who supports research on a long-term basis, Kone Foundation cannot just look at current crises, but must try to think further, decades away. Taina Saarinen, a specialist in science studies, has even suggested that allocating research funding based on rapid social impact is unethical. The people who make funding decisions for Kone Foundation must consider which things are left in the shade when attention is paid to the biggest challenges of the moment. If all funders focus only on them, we are working against our own future.


Kalle Korhonen

The writer is Kone Foundation's Director of Research Funding.