Societal engagement, Finnish media, and foreign academics – how to bridge the gap?

Mari K. Niemi

In academia, there’s a growing emphasis on academics’ societal engagement and impact – which are closely linked with each other. One way of gaining impact for one’s research is through engaging with stakeholders such as media, political decision makers, cities and municipalities, businesses, and third sector organisations.

While it’s not always easy to define all the forms impact can manifest itself, nor is it easy to measure it, there is a wide agreement on its importance. When decisions and development work in society are based on research, science can help in improving people’s lives, taking care of the environment, and planning for a more sustainable, resilient future.

In this blog, I will first raise a few points on why opening networks and platforms to foreign academics’ expertise in Finland is vital. After that, I share the first findings of the BASE – Building Academics’ Societal Impact project’s survey carried out among Finland-based foreign academics on their societal engagement. In this blog, the focus is in their relationship with Finnish media. The media’s role is central, as visibility and prominence gained through media can help develop new connections and open doors.

Finally, I will share some exciting news about a new science communication and networking event that offers a platform for international academics to showcase their work in front of a live audience. Its “Call for Presenters” is now on.

Space for development – the big picture

Although academia in Finland is growingly international, this does not reflect too well in Finnish societal discussion or in the composition of expert groups and decision-making bodies. In short: the expertise of foreign academics is not used as well and widely as it could and should be.

This has at least three negative consequences:

  1. Foreign researchers may find the playing field highly unequal and disempowering as doors to networks, media, public debate, and influence may seem impossible to open.
  2. Finnish society is on the losing side if research funded and carried out in Finland does not translate to the development and improvement of society in Finland. Foreign academics may have a fine impact in their respective fields and internationally, but the impact gained in Finland would be valuable for both Finnish society and the academics’ CVs and career prospects in Finland.
  3. The pluralistic and diverse public debate as well as wider societal development and analysis call for a variety of perspectives and the highest level of expertise. If we let language be a barrier, we lose the chance for more inclusive, high-quality discussion – one that could also help in tackling racism and in developing a more diverse society that works for all, regardless of one’s background.

Language is often addressed as a problem, but what if our laziness is the root cause? Maybe we Finns are just used to handling things in Finnish, relying on those experts we’ve ‘always’ relied on, doing things the same way we have done before? Maybe it is just easier, more comfortable for us to turn to existing networks, instead of building new, more inclusive ones?

How do foreign academics see their collaboration with the Finnish media?

To better understand the field of societal engagement and foreign academics’ work in Finland, we conducted a survey (April 13th to June 3rd, N= 214). The survey is part of the BASE – Building Academics’ Societal Impact -project. The survey gives us good guidance, especially on younger scholars’ situations and views – 71% of respondents were under 40 years of age. A more comprehensive presentation on the survey’s results will be published in early September 2022 – here the focus will solely be on the findings related to collaboration with journalistic media.

As the figure below shows, lack of Finnish skills is the most often mentioned factor holding foreign academics back in their desire to collaborate with Finnish media. Perhaps surprisingly this continues to be the situation in a country with a highly educated workforce: it should be rather impossible to find a newsroom where English is not widely spoken and understood. However, pressures of journalistic work include tight schedules and avoidance of mistakes, which together push journalists to rely on trusted, already well-known sources with whom collaboration has been smooth before.

Please, enter the LINK: Factors that affect foreign academics´ desire to collaborate with the journalistic media

More work remains to be done also in our attitude towards non-native Finnish speakers. As one of our respondents explained: “My Finnish is adequate but not good enough that I would feel confident.” Should we lower the bar on good-enough Finnish, allowing people learning it to use it with more confidence – gaps can always be filled with English when needed?

While some of the practical realities may hinder the efforts, widening the selection of voices included in public discussion is a joint responsibility. If academia and media choose to collaborate on this challenge effectively and ambitiously together, a lot can be achieved.

There is also work to be done in universities and other organisations supporting foreign academics’ societal engagement. Nearly 50 percent of our respondents said they do not know where to start and whom to contact, and about one-third said they did not have training or enough time for these efforts. Shyness in public speaking and fear of negative publicity were mentioned less often (around 20 percent of respondents) but should be addressed as well. As one of the respondents put it: “Never tried it and am very afraid to be misinterpreted in the media and taken out of context”. Ensuring there are support systems in place provided by employers is vital for the well-being of all academics taking the spotlight, regardless of their background.

Importantly, only around 5 percent of the respondents thought collaboration with the media is not useful for their career, which brings us back to the starting point. A more equal working environment in terms of societal engagement is a question of fairness. I am positive that the scholars who get their voices heard and feel they can participate in the societal discussion and public life as experts are more likely to set their roots in Finland. As the country continues its efforts in becoming a more welcoming, attractive country for foreign talents, this perspective should not be overlooked.

 

Work In the BASE project continues. More results of the study will be published in September. We are also co-organisers of the new research communication and networking event, Science Night LIVE! at Heureka. Its Call for Presenters is now open (first round until 8th August).

Photo: Anne Nyyssönen

Tiedetoimittajien liitto (The Finnish Association of Science Editors and Journalists, FASEJ), is one of the BASE project’s collaborators. The project is funded by Jenny and Antti Wihuri Foundation. The work is carried out in the E2 Research, and led by the author of this blog.

 

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