6 December 2021
You are a molecular cell biologist and have taken up several roles in research policy or governance, including at the EMBC. What was your motivation for this path?
After my PhD at the University of Helsinki, I got an EMBO Fellowship for postdoctoral research in cell biology with Kai Simons at EMBL. I learned that an international community with diverse ideas and backgrounds, state-of-the-art infrastructure and flat hierarchies supports quality research. I had the opportunity to model the EMBL concept when I was in charge of establishing the Institute for Molecular Medicine Finland (FIMM), one of the Nordic EMBL partnership institutions.
While being a PI and member of the Medical Research Council in Finland, I was appointed as Finnish scientific delegate to EMBL Council as well as EMBC, and later I became EMBC President. I started to see something else than just my research domain and became interested in this wider view. When I became Vice President for Research of the University of Helsinki I started to learn about research cultures in different disciplines. It was like a wakeup call. I decided I will not go back to the bench and my professorship, but serve the entire scientific and scholarly community. Afterwards, I was Chief Executive of the European Science Foundation (ESF) in Strasbourg. As ESF funded research and coordinated across 30 member countries, I got a European view of all disciplines.
Then I came back to Finland and was appointed Vice-President of the Finnish Research Council – Academy of Finland. In July 2016 I started my five-year position as Director of Biocenter Finland where I focussed on life sciences again. I was in the Prime Minister’s Research and Innovation Council where we directly affected legislation and decisions on targeting of funds. I was also on the advisory boards of the Commissioner of Research and the European Innovation Council of the EU. It is inspiring, and a privilege, to be able to influence, but it also carries a lot of responsibility.
You are currently Director of Biocenter Finland. Can you explain more about it?
Biocenter Finland is an umbrella organization owned by the six Finnish universities with life science and medical faculties. We operate 15 technology platforms with expensive instruments and highly trained staff. They are openly accessible to the entire life sciences community of 17,000 researchers. I would say all frontier molecular biologists use them, including half of Finland’s ERC grantees. We have a fantastic adviser: Professor Heldin, Chairman of the Board of the Nobel Foundation and former Chair of the EMBO Council, is the chair of our scientific advisory board.
What are the current trends in the life sciences landscape of Finland?
One important trend is the move to translation of findings from fundamental research to benefit society. The research council has traditionally not funded translation. But over the past few years, it has also been taken into consideration how research findings can be applied.
Has this created new opportunities for life scientists?
A good example is the Flagship programme. The applicants must describe how they translate their findings into benefits for society. The programme has ten Flagships including several in the life sciences. Technology Academy Finland (TAF) awards the one million euros Millennium Technology Prize for research-based groundbreaking innovations every two years. Chairing the board of TAF has given me a global insight into the community of researcher-innovators.
Are there any challenges?
The budget of the research council is foreseen to be seriously cut. But even when we had a relatively good level of funding, the research infrastructure budget always was too small. This challenge relates to the EMBC and EMBL membership of Finland: As we don’t have everything, we depend on partnerships and access to infrastructure elsewhere. Therefore, the fantastic EMBL infrastructure and the EMBO fellowships, that give people access to infrastructure where they carry out postdoctoral research, are so important.
Another challenge is that we have a high number of PhD graduates every year. We have to ask: What are the environments beyond academia that can absorb them? Too many want to stay in academia, though we should also be able to absorb them into the public and private sectors.
What role does EMBO have in supporting researchers in Finland?
EMBO grants are truly important for life scientists in Finland to get the essential experience in a foreign environment. Young Finnish life scientists should be more interested in going abroad and in applying for an EMBO grant. More scientists could take up these opportunities, but whether they grasp them is an individual choice.