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Humanities and social sciences needed to increase understanding and identify problems in society

11.05.2006


With the ever more pervasive emphasis today on results, benefits and profits, research and science are under increasing pressure to show an impact. Investments made out of the public purse are expected to pay back. Although funding for research has increased considerably, competition for that funding has increased even more. This is seen both within the field of science and in the interaction and exchange between science and other spheres of life. Whenever questions are asked about the allocation of funds, about why science is more worthy of support than health care or the police service, the attention turns to impacts. Every aspect of the debate on impacts is dominated by money. The investment must generate a worthwhile return. Science is expected to represent a significant force of production whose national function is to strengthen the competitiveness of Finnish business and industry in the global market economy.



This is clear from the report "Civilisation cannot be imported. Researcher commentary on the impacts of cultural and sosial research" is one of the Academy’s SIGHT2006 publications on the state, level and impact of Finnish science to be published this year.

Representatives of cultural and social sciences have had two strategies in this debate. On the one hand they have pointed out that not all values can be measured in money terms. The aim is to try and contain the impacts of research within the field of science. Knowledge is considered valuable in and of itself; it is not thought to be necessary separately to identify any instrumental values. The thinking is that civilized society should support and sponsor science in the same way as it supports and sponsors art and other forms of culture. Science is thus protected from the practices and principles of business. The concepts of accountability, benefits, efficiency, performance targets, competition, measurement and impact are rejected by reference to civilization and scientific autonomy. Dependence on the outside society is a problem because science has to be able to justify the value of civilization and autonomy in order to get the funding it needs. Nonetheless it is accepted that at least within the science community, it is necessary to have debate about what is good and worthwhile and what has a positive impact.


The other strategy is to accept the challenge presented by society. Questions of impact and even benefits are discussed and debated, but not without weighing and defining the rules of discussion and debate and interpreting the concepts. The utility and benefits of all research must be open to discussion as long as those concepts are understood in broad enough terms. Specifically, this means that indirect impacts are also taken into account, as are those that evolve over time. In many cases the significance of individual research results only become apparent in a broader context. The debate on the impacts of research must be tied in with the question of quality because only high-quality research can have a real impact.

Research can promote welfare without producing tangible products

The criteria for impact need to be defined more closely. It is necessary to take account of the various channels through which impacts can be exerted. Researchers exert an impact through their publications, but also through the tuition they provide, through administration, positions of expertise and grassroots activities. Publications and the way that research results are represented are divided into a number of different categories. The audience consists of other researchers, students and people outside the science community. Indirect impacts also comprise the growth of knowledge and understanding, which gives greater exposure to the problems and encourages public debate in society. Impact is a complex web through which research knowledge is utilised and human welfare advanced.

The problem for those who take a favourable view on debating questions of impact is that even the broader concept of benefit is too narrowly defined. The value of scientific research is not confined to the external and to the instrumental. It might be possible to defend the view that all research should ultimately promote the good of human beings. However, many feel that the aim of science is to uncover the truth, regardless of well-being.

Research can promote welfare without producing tangible products. Research can have two main types of results: instruments that promote welfare but also components of welfare that have value in their own right. The results of basic research satisfy people’s intellectual curiosity. Research in the human sciences also produces forms of communication that are part of human life as well as moral and cultural consciousness. None of this has any external benefit. One may ask whether life without intellectual curiosity, a culture of knowledge and morality based on autonomous deliberation would be worthwhile and significant even in the presence of boundless external good. If it is absolutely necessary to use the concept of benefit, then one should talk not only about the instrumental, but also the constitutive.

Questions of impact call for a dual strategy

It is important to stress that the value of science lies not only in the externally beneficial. Science must be maintained and upheld if for no other reason then so that people can express themselves as thinking, moral and cultural creatures. If indirect and long-term external impacts are additionally taken into account and carefully examined, then it is possible to show that science is a beneficial and profitable investment.

The natural sciences and human sciences have to contend with largely the same problems when it comes to the impact of science. There are also certain types of impact that specifically apply to the humanities and social sciences. In addition to having intrinsic value, these fields are useful externally because they are needed in identifying and resolving social problems. Knowledge gained through human sciences research can help people to make informed decisions and avoid ill-informed ones. It also helps citizens to understand themselves and each other, to criticise those in power and to protect themselves against the abuse of power.

One way to defend the value of cultural and social research is as follows: The purpose and function of human sciences research in historical and other disciplines is to explain how our way of life has evolved and how the present differs from the past. Research helps us to see which features and characteristics of the environment are permanent and which are variable, which are necessary and which are random, which are intentional and which are unintentional. This function ties in with understanding, critiquing and building. Research concerned with historical questions may engender sympathy towards people who lived in the past, who through no fault of their own have had to make fateful choices on the strength of lacking information. Research can also criticise the use of power by disclosing myths and low motives both in the past and in the present. It is even possible to learn from research. Studying societies of the past and the present as well as their cultural phenomena provides a useful platform for looking ahead to the future, albeit often by staking out the boundaries of what is possible rather than by offering ready-made solutions.

Finnish researchers must also explore culture and society in other countries

What was said above does not suffice as an answer to the question of impact. It is also necessary to know how much needs to be invested in research concerned with culture and society in relation to other fields of research. It can also be asked what kind of research has particularly strong impact within the human sciences. Why should more money be given to this than to that project? Or to focus more on the principle of the matter, should priority be given to research that produces not only internal value and significance, but that is particularly strong on external impact and benefits. But this road leads us back to the problems of measurement, anticipation and indirect impacts. It is important to encourage more diverse debate and discussion on the focal areas of research in disciplines concerned with culture and society. All interested parties should contribute to this debate; not only researchers but also representatives of government and business and industry as well as ordinary citizens.

There has also been some debate recently on whether or not there is an obligation for Finnish society to support and sponsor basic scientific research, even if the general significance and impact of science is recognized. Doubts have been voiced over whether Finland really has adequate resources to support basic research; perhaps, or whether it would do wisely to focus on applications that have immediate effects? If basic research is expensive, then why conduct basic research in Finland? Would it make more economic sense for a small country to import knowledge from abroad and to apply that knowledge to local needs?

Seen from the vantage point of sciences concerned with culture and society, this question can be answered as follows: The humanities and social sciences are contextual, dependent on time and place. If research is to have impacts that have a bearing on Finnish society, then it is also necessary to have researchers who are familiar with the Finnish context. This goes beyond the traditional argument that Finnish history, culture and society and Finnish language are only of interest to Finnish scholars, that no one else has the know-how. In this age of globalisation Finnish researchers must also explore culture and society in other European countries, indeed in the whole world. It is also necessary to bear in mind that research concerned with culture and society must be constantly rewritten because the context is constantly changing, as are the views and opinions of researchers and the general public about the functions of research. It is not enough simply to adopt and pass on knowledge from elsewhere. In order to be able to do this reliably, one has to be a researcher. Bringing impacts to bear upon the broader society is a challenge that can only be adequately taken on by a researcher who applies the internal criteria of science and who is capable of working within the international science community.

Leena Vahakyla | alfa
Further information:
http://www.aka.fi/eng

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