Category Archives: Hilkka Soininen

Brain drain

Researchers are facing tough times, as the competition for research funding is getting harder and harder.  In Finland, many funding instruments have been developed in the direction steered from above. An example of this is funding available through the Strategic Research Council of the Academy of Finland, highlighting impact. At the same time, funding for basic research in particular is hard to come by.  Research is dictated by money: the funder sets the pace and the researcher is expected to keep up. This warrants the question of whether this kind of an environment fosters long-term research at the top level.

Statistics show that over the past few years, people with academic degrees are migrating abroad in increasing numbers in the hope of better conditions for working and doing research. Many, including the Chair of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers Petri Koikkalainen in an interview by the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE, have expressed their concern over the brain drain, as many Finnish scientists and entire research groups are relocating to research institutes abroad.

We find ourselves in this situation following a long recession. The Finnish Government’s cuts on higher education institutions’ funding also play a role in worsening the situation. The effects are becoming increasingly visible towards the end of the decade.

Published recently, the State of Scientific Research in Finland report shows that science in Finland is in a moderate shape, yet falling behind in the competition. There is a risk that we continue to decline in international rankings.

Science is global in nature. Networking is essential, and researcher mobility is desirable. But how do we make sure that our well-trained researchers return home and commit to Finland? We need attractive research environments and infrastructures, continuity and visions of the future. Currently, our research is too scattered. We need larger entities and removal of overlaps.

Many countries at the top of science attract researchers with money. In Finland, we train our own researchers and our research training is of an outstanding quality. However, we need to critically review the situation regarding research funding and make wise investments – otherwise we’ll end up just prepping researchers for a career abroad.

Hilkka Soininen

Lean thinking in the academic world

Originally, Lean thinking and the Lean Management Model were introduced for the purposes of automotive industry process management. The objective was to reduce unnecessary work phases and labour, make less errors, produce better quality, achieve faster flow-through times and cut down on costs. In management, the key principles of Lean in everyday activities are “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People”. These are good principles. Lean thinking is gaining footing also in health care and in hospitals, and the experiences have been positive.

How about in the academic world? A university is not a car factory. Teaching, research, administration – all of these nevertheless involve a large number of different processes. Profitability is measured through numerical indicators such as numbers of degrees awarded, completion times, numbers of students completing 55 credits, publications, doctoral dissertations, competitive funding, etc., and also feedback.

The smoothness and swiftness of processes are important for the university’s employees, customers, students and research partners alike.

Reductions in the universities’ funding also forces them to think about how money gets used. How to achieve similar, or better, results by doing less – i.e. by eliminating unnecessary work? As organisations, the universities still have a long way to go when it comes to reforming their ways of doing things. The old position-based thinking sits tight and complex administrative processes cause things to run not-so-smoothly.

Heavy expectations are placed on digitalisation, which comes with great opportunities and in which Finland could lead the way for others. The compatibility and functionality of information systems are of utmost importance.  System providers should also feel this pressure, so that clients don’t have to pay for systems in which a slowly progressing progress bar plays the leading role.

Lean comes with the idea of finding better solutions – together. There are always things that could be done better.

Lean management in any organisation is the recognition and daily practice of the Lean principles: “Continuous Improvement” and “Respect for People.”

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen
Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences


Multidisciplinarity – interdisciplinarity in tackling global challenges

A special issue of Nature, September 17, 2015 published articles on interdisciplinarity in science. The article by Robert Van Noorden shows some interesting figures and numbers on this topic. The popularity of interdisciplinary has been varying over time, but currently it seems to be on the rise and is the most popular ever now in the twenty-first century.

Is interdisciplinarity needed? Scientists, policymakers and also funders consider it important in solving complicated questions. Horizon2020 programmes, for example, strongly emphasise interdisciplinary approaches and also require an evaluation of impact of the proposed research from different points of view.

Does interdisciplinarity have impact? It depends on how you measure it and what is the timeframe. In terms of citations, papers with less interdisciplinarity gained more citations compared to those with more interdisciplinarity over a 3-year period. However, in a longer period up to 13 years citations of the more interdisciplinary papers overcame those with a less diverse scope. Of course, impact is not only counting citations but considering other impact such as societal, health, technological and economic impact as well.

Is interdisciplinary research easy to do? Nowadays, research often needs expertise of different fields of science. “Low hanging fruit” in science are not easy to catch any more. It may take time to find the common language between experts from different disciplines. It takes time to deliver, but it can be rewarding.

Is it related to the field of science? It is notable that e.g. clinical medicine papers rarely cite papers from other disciplines of science. On the other hand “health science” in a broader sense and social studies of medicine in particular seem be very interdisciplinary.

Does it work in Finland? There are still too many barriers between universities, faculties, departments, professions, and research groups. The strategic research funding (STN) funding instrument is one way to facilitate interdisciplinarity – however, top down. I think that it is better to promote science across borders and spontaneous interaction between research groups with different expertise – bottom up.

It is not easy but it may be rewarding and productive. I recommend it!

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen
Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences

Power naps for hard workers

Chancellor Angela Merkel dashes from one meeting to the next between cities in Europe, and sometimes pops across the Atlantic, too. Negotiations often stretch into the small hours, and getting enough sleep is a scarce luxury, not to mention the jet lag on top of all.  Angela Merkel, however, has said that four hours of sleep is enough for her. We’ve seen similar stretching here in Finland at the time of collective bargaining. In pressing situations where a solution must be reached, long hours and marathon meetings are nothing new under the sun. But are we talking about conscious negotiation tactics or about something the situation requires? One can’t help but wonder in how sound mind and body important decisions are being made. A massive machinery is at work behind negotiations, of course, but it still takes stamina.

The need for sleep is individual. Most of us need seven or eight hours of sleep per night, some do fine with just four. But we all know from experience that too little sleep lowers our performance. Our energy levels sink, we lose concentration, we have trouble remembering things and we get irritated. Long-term lack of sleep makes us susceptible to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, overweight, stress, memory problems and even memory diseases and depression, and it weakens our immune system.

Here at the university, both students and staff members put in long hours every week. There’s a lot to do and deadlines to meet.  Moreover, involvement in international networks requires travelling: early starts and late returns. Students, too, can find themselves in cross pressure between work and exams. There’s nothing like stress and work-related worries when it comes to losing sleep.

After a tough week, one needs to recover. It’s a good thing that a night of little sleep and sleep debt can be compensated for.  During the weekend, for example, recovery sleep can be used to help the body recover. In other words, power napping is something to be recommended: it’s free and good for health.

Hilkka Soininen (2)Hilkka Soininen

MEP elections – who’s interested in education and research?

I couldn’t resist the temptation to try out a voting advice application. YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, has made its voting advice application into a nice entertainment package that one can enjoy with or without sound.

Peace, security, jobs, equality, federal state, climate change, economy, debt and tax paradises are words frequently found in the descriptions of the MEP candidates in YLE’s voting advice application. I read through three election promises from 200 Finnish MEP candidates, and only two of them mention education and one mentions research.

“We need to ensure a high level of education and research – for growth and employment,” says a candidate of the Swedish People’s Party of Finland.  “I promise to promote tuition-free education in the EU and to defend tuition-free education in Finland,” says a candidate of the Left Alliance.

Are things really so well in Europe that education and research are nowhere near the top of the priority list? Or are they just being taken for granted? Or do we have other, more pressing problems that need solving? Or is it just safer to address the same trendy themes as everybody else?

We shouldn’t forget that education and research play a role in creating the foundations for peace, security, equality, stable economic development, innovations and new jobs.

On the other hand, the EU offers funding opportunities for education and research, and we have just witnessed the launch of the Erasmus+ and Horizon2020 programmes. The door to internationalisation, networking and conducting research is open. All we have to do is to seize this opportunity.

Although the Finnish MEP candidates don’t seem to be that much interested in issues of importance to the academic community, I encourage everyone to vote nonetheless. It’s important to have skilled people in the European Parliament.

Hilkka Soininen (2) Hilkka Soininen