Science is the antidote to the challenges we are facing as a society as well as a light guiding us in the valley of darkness we traverse. Through high-quality research focused on solving global problems as well as teaching that provides education to people who will change the world in the future, we can develop, learn, teach and find our way as a society through existential challenges as well as find a meaning for our life. In other words, we can do that which makes human beings human. In the words of Louis Pasteur: ‘Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.’
When I was preparing for my entrance exam in 2017, there were several radical changes going on in the world. Donald Trump, Brexit, climate change, information operations, the Syrian Civil War and so on. In theory, you might think that living in times of global phenomena and changes like these would be interesting for a future social scientist observing them. However, the direction the world seemed to be moving towards mostly served to cause me anxiety. Hate, despair, confrontations and a lack of prospects seemed to dominate the media field and societal discussion in a way that was difficult to comprehend, let alone accept.
Even though 2020 is also full of global challenges, ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to the environmental crisis, the world still appears quite different to a young third-year student in the Faculty of Social Sciences who feels connected to the University community and the student movement. Understanding society and societal phenomena on a deeper level than before with the help of science provides clarity, comfort and belief in the world being, in the end, a somewhat logical entity where everything happens for a reason. When problems have causes, these causes can also be located and the problems resolved. Science provides us with the tools that help us understand and change the world.
The new Strategic Plan of the University of Helsinki for 2021–2030 includes the fine goal of strengthening the connection between research and teaching as well as making students actively involved in all activities of the University community, including research, the development of teaching and community relations, right from the beginning of their studies. At the same time, developing concrete career skills and, for instance, entrepreneurship skills are excellent goals through which students graduating from the University of Helsinki will receive not only a degree certificate but also skills that will help them change the world.
An excellent example of the positive development is the course on sustainability that is currently being planned in a process I am involved in as a student representative. In the future, the course will be made common for all students. Integrating sustainability studies into the entire University in a cross-disciplinary fashion is an inspiring and long-awaited reform with immense potential. In addition to this, the University could take an even more active role than before in encouraging students towards independent agency. Students could be rewarded for societal activity with, for instance, credits in a cross-disciplinary study module in citizenship, which anyone could complete. Being an active student allows people to concretely work with the important issues of our time already during their studies. This is the kind of activity for which we should also develop new functional incentives.
High-quality research is key to producing first-rate teaching. This way, research is actually the be-all and end-all for students, too. What a great opportunity it would be for our first-class research if we could further strengthen the link between research and students to create an entity that lives and thrives in an even stronger symbiosis than before. After all, who would spread research in society better than students? If we would be able to better integrate students into scientific processes and include the different aspects of research as part of studies, the people who will change the world in the future would be popularising the best research of our time during their careers – or even continue conducting it as the new academic generation.
The world needs science and research-based skills today maybe more than ever before. Even though the global situation and massive global problems may cause us anxiety, we cannot be paralysed when faced with them. Science helps us understand the world and genuinely relieves the pain. At least the youngster I still was a few years back, anxiously observing the world, is significantly better prepared to understand and tackle the problems of our society today – and science is to thank for that.
As an academic community, we have the opportunity and responsibility to show an example by acting as the motor of societal development and problem-solving. It is our duty to do all that we can to overcome societal challenges – both globally and in our own immediate environment. Students’ level of education, on the other hand, can be further raised through scientific research. Let us, then, strengthen the union between research and teaching as well as create even better conditions for educating more critical, ethical and just people who will change this world. It is time to ring the bells, put on our best clothes and grab a bouquet to go – let us pronounce the new union of research and teaching!
Akseli Rouvari is a member of the Board of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki in 2020 (in charge of educational policy, communication, environment & climate), a student of politics, media and communication in the Faculty of Social Sciences and an optimist on a mission to change the world.