Are new forms of ”community science” emerging?

Although Kone Foundation supports activities that are marginal and outside the mainstream, in its own work it follows some global trends it considers as significant.

One is the visibility and outreach of research: other audiences besides the scholarly community can be engaged in research processes. Kone Foundation’s research funding emphasizes the humanities and the social sciences, and thus its intention has never been to publish findings from the research it has funded in a concise format. It is challenging, and often questionable, to create compact ”science news” from the findings of humanities research. Instead, it is necessary to introduce the public to broader discussions in the relevant field.

One of the ways of engaging audiences is to make research processes more transparent: how do scholars and research groups work in practice? When I participated in a discussion on research popularization organized by Sitra and Kaskas Media in January, we talked at our table about why the audience should familiarize themselves with the work of academic researchers. After all, we do not usually hear about the work of, say, IT engineers, corporate analysts, or communications assistants. Maybe not, but at least a funder of creative work is willing to highlight what the researchers and artists funded by it are working on. For public funding organizations, such transparency is motivated because the funds are coming from taxpayers, but private funders also care about public interest. At Kone Foundation we find it important to diminish the prejudices regarding creative scholarly and artistic work, although we do not yet reach the people with negative attitudes towards scholars and artists working on grants.

A problem which may emerge when research processes are made more transparent is the tendency to personify research too much. If the same ”top scientists” constantly appear in magazine articles and photos, readers will misunderstand how academic research processes work. Geniuses and prodigies do influence the accomplishments of research, but what is more important is the everyday boldness of co-operation across different kinds of borders. In my view, a well-balanced Finnish example of this trend is the magazine Tähdet ja avaruus of the Astronomical Association Ursa, which regularly illustrates its stories with the images of those who participated in the research or who comment on it.

The aim of the Is Finland Becoming Polarized? programme is to create co-operation on equal terms between academic researchers and journalists, an important group of stakeholders of scholarly inquiry. The underlying assumption is that when the users of research knowledge are engaged in the research process from the beginning, they will be more prone to use the findings and spread the knowledge. It is becoming evident that this is what happening, for example, in the Vuosaari project, by Reetta Räty and her colleagues.

Ordinary people can be engaged in research work, too.

One of the aims of our Language Programme is to use methods of citizen science, such as crowd-sourcing. However, it is not always easy to recruit people to contribute voluntarily to research work. A group of researchers of Finnish sociolinguistics lead by Hanna Lappalainen recently set a bold example in the Kamppi popularization event funded by Kone Foundation. They approached passers-by at the shopping centre with life size cardboard figures of celebrities and politicians. What initially sounded a crazy idea became, after hard work, a fine experience for over a hundred visitors of the mall who became research subjects, and produced a good amount of research material for sociolinguists.

At a time when scholars and scientists are using methods of popularization and citizen science in order to establish contacts with new audiences, artists and museum education officers are doing comparable work in the art world. Furthermore, a new field of art, community art, has been in existence for some decades now. In community art, non-professionals actively participate in the creation of works of art under the direction of an artist. (’Community’ does not necessarily refer to at-risk communities here.) The artist does not necessarily know what the final work will be like. One might think that this is very far from academic research, in which hypotheses are tested on materials, which bring forth new hypotheses, and arguments, discussion, and findings. But as we learned at the Science Forum in January, incidental encounters have a role in research, which means that we must give ”community science” a chance, too.


Kalle Korhonen

Kone Foundation Head of research affairs