The Basics Remain

A ”black swan” is an exceptional event with remarkable consequences, one that is surprising, outside everything that people have experienced before and in hindsight seems obvious and possible. The concept was originally introduced by Lebanese-born economic thinker Nassim Taleb in his book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been called a black swan. Taleb, however, does not accept this interpretation and says it is an ordinary “white swan”, a known phenomenon which was inevitable and highly probable. On the other hand, its characteristics greatly resemble different types of black swans described by the Norwegian professor Terje Aven. The first of these is a previously entirely unknown event that nobody could predict. The other one is a phenomenon known by some, but unknown to the parties concerned. The third describes a previously known phenomenon, the occurrence of which has been thought unlikely, and that nevertheless surprisingly happens.

Black swans change our ways of thinking radically, but their song carries the stability of the foundations of science. The first swan is telling of the need for wide-ranging basic research. The unknown needs to be examined widely, without limiting oneself to easily utilizable topics. Otherwise, we lie at the bottom of a well, staring at a small slice of the sky, unable to see alternatives, and are surprised by threats.

The second praises the benefits of multidisciplinarity, the power of openness and the importance of public discussion. Everyone wins when professors, other teachers and researchers discuss new research results in public and in teaching. Science is a strong foundation for planning practical activities, and even though we follow the number of cases from newspapers, some of us mourning our loved ones, the practical skills developed through knowledge save many people. Discussion does not need to be all about offering tools and supporting decisionmaking either. Culture and art belong in difficult times, too.

The third swan cautions against arrogance. As new knowledge accumulates, the self-correction of science recognizes as false that which yesterday was viewed as the truth. To our detriment, false knowledge also affects us through previous decisions, and new knowledge does not turn mistaken actions into right. A scientist’s responsibility reaches far, and this highlights the significance of good scientific practice.

On the other hand, vehement opinions do not care about self-correction, and in those circles academic credibility is knocked out already before the start of the match. Of course, we face the problem of incredibility together with other institutions. Even the World Economic Forum consisting of international economic influencers did not see the seriousness and probability of a future pandemic in their crisis reports for over a decade. How easy it would be to gloat.

Finally, let’s talk constructively about money. In the upcoming days, the government will discuss the budget. A positive thing is that in the proposition of the Ministry of Finance, the funding of the Academy of Finland has not been cut. The funding enables even research on COVID-19 topics without eating up the resources of other research.

The proposition for an additional tax deduction for companies on expenses related to research and innovation projects conducted with higher education institutions and research institutes is good. This would enable companies to activate their research collaboration and to prove the benefits of a possible extension of the deduction. I hope that in the government’s separate future investments, research and development work is viewed as central in constructing the future.

By contrast, the preparation of the EU research funding was a disappointment. The plans about increasing the funding that were on the table before have been reduced. Eyes are now on the EU Parliament, which has demanded changes to the results of the European Council’s marathon meeting. The result should be RDI funding that is more clearly geared towards the future.

COVID-19 is not the first or the last adversity faced by mankind. We can get through this too and on the stock market for solving global problems, science is still a good object of purchase.

Jouni Kivistö-Rahnasto
Chair, The Finnish Union of University Professors

Painetussa lehdessä sivu 44