Meet the Board: Ilari E. Sääksjärvi: interaction is essential in a researcher’s work and promotes appreciation of science

Professor Ilari E. Sääksjärvi, who joined the governing board of the Nessling Foundation in August, is a biodiversity researcher who has always considered communication and interaction essential in a researcher’s work. In Professor Sääksjärvi’s ideal world, public debate would be equal regardless of education and background, people would understand biodiversity loss as a crisis equal to climate change, and all Finns would know certain important things about the Amazon rainforest.

Welcome to the governing board of the Nessling Foundation, Ilari E. Sääksjärvi! You are the Director of the Biodiversity Unit and Professor of Biodiversity Research at the University of Turku and Vice-Chairman of the Finnish Nature Panel, and you have been studying the biodiversity of the Amazon since 1998. How has the debate on biodiversity changed over the years and decades?

“Ten years ago, very little was said about biodiversity. The debate about global challenges focused primarily on climate change, which worried biodiversity researchers. It is only in the last two or three years that the situation has changed as biodiversity and nature loss issues have increased in importance in the public debate. It is not that these two issues compete with each other; it is just that we have to realize that the two issues are interdependent.

A good example of the increased importance of the biodiversity debate is that the largest newspaper in Finland, Helsingin Sanomat, now has on its staff an editor, Petja Pelli, who specializes in biodiversity loss. Public awareness of this issue is gradually moving towards the realization that we are an inseparable part of nature; for example, the human economy, security and health depend on nature doing well. I hope that more and more people understand this.

A more active role adopted by researchers has contributed to the change. International biodiversity reports have also played an important part in the increased visibility of the issue. The 2019 global IPBES Report was a turning point in creating a broader understanding of what biodiversity loss is and how it manifests. The Dasgupta Review, however, has reached new audiences as it has translated biodiversity loss into the language of economics.

Various reports have played a major role in how biodiversity loss as a global challenge has received attention in the media.”

You’re very active on Twitter and you are often invited to comment on a variety of nature-related topics in the media. In addition, you have written books for the general public (e.g. Andeilta Amazoniaan [“From the Andes to the Amazon”, Otava 2005] and Tuntematon maa: luonnon monimuotoisuuden käsikirja [“Unknown Land: A Handbook on Biodiversity”, Otava 2007]). You have also received Kone Foundation’s Vuoden tiedekynä Academic Writing Award 2011 and you were selected Academic of the Year 2012 for your achievements in the fields of research, education and social interaction.

What role has communication played in your academic career?

“Communication has always been extremely important to me as a researcher, especially for two reasons: first, as a scientist and professor, I feel obligated to inform people about my research and, second, I have felt that communication has empowered me and helped me break free from the rigorous world of science. For me, the most important communication methods have been visits to kindergartens and schools. I spend a lot of time with children and young people, which gives me a tremendous amount of strength and energy.

“An important insight for me personally has been that communication can motivate your research in a whole new way”

The verbalization of research has taught me to communicate on different topics in new ways, to keep things simple and not to hide behind scientific jargon. This forces one to view research from new perspectives and to gain a better understanding of the topics.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the societal impact of science. I think we researchers also have room for improvement in explaining why science is important.

I’m not saying that all scientists should be active communicators. To a certain extent, everyone should be prepared to share information about their research; however, in a research team, for example, not everyone needs to have an active communication role. Communication responsibility can be distributed with an emphasis on those who are inherently keen communicators.

I also teach science communication at the University of Turku and, in my own zoology lectures, I often highlight the role of communication, choosing current topics from social media, for example. In my experience, the younger generation of researchers understands the value of science communication. I believe that the role of communication in research will increase, and I know that communication enhances the career prospects of a researcher.

An important insight for me personally has been that communication can motivate your research in a whole new way.”

The Nessling Foundation emphasizes the importance of communication to its grantees and requires a communication and interaction plan as part of the application. How is this emphasis concretely reflected in the governing board’s work?

“Prior to my term on the governing board, I served for one year on the committee of experts as an evaluator. In that role, I paid special attention to interaction plans – I remember being impressed by how well on average they were drafted. Today, researchers know how to use different means of communication in their work. I want to continue highlighting these themes during my term on the governing board because I feel they are really important.

One area in which foundations also have an important role to play is promoting a culture of discourse which is equal for all. It is important for us scientists to listen to others, as we may learn something new.

The general atmosphere around the debate on environmental issues should be one in which everyone’s opinion is valued, regardless of their educational background. Everybody should be allowed to have their voice heard. This notion is well implemented in a project set up by the Nessling Foundation together with the Tiina and Antti Herlin Foundation: the Puistokatu 4 project.”

You are relatively new to the foundation. What was your image of the Nessling Foundation before you started, and has that image changed since then?

“My image of the foundation was positive, and is today even more positive. In my eyes, the Nessling Foundation has always stood out with how it provides sparring for young researchers: they have the opportunity to learn about the grant application process, even if they do not receive funding. Each year, the foundation also provides oral feedback to applicants who have had their grant application rejected.

This is consistent with the foundation’s set of values: every researcher is appreciated and everyone is given the opportunity to learn. My term on the expert committee taught me that every single application gets the attention it deserves and all applications are read carefully.

In addition to young researchers, the foundation supports research in a spirit of innovation that is extremely important. A good example of this was last year’s special call “The economy and human health in the planet’s ecological crisis.”

The Nessling Foundation has an interesting history, as the foundation’s funds come from the automotive industry. The foundation’s history shows us that not everything is black and white when it comes to environmental issues: one can be an automotive industry leader, like Tor Nessling, and still care about the environment.”

You were recruited when Professor Timo Kairesalo left the governing board when he turned 70. How have the first few months been and what do you expect from the board work? 

“Early last summer, as I was spending a quiet evening at home, the phone rang. It was Simo Honkanen, the chairman of the governing board of the Nessling Foundation, and he asked if I would be willing to join the board. I didn’t have to think too long – I was rather flattered that I had been asked. It had actually been my secret dream to become involved in the work of the foundation.

I have started my term on the governing board with great enthusiasm and I am still in the process of learning the ropes. I have great respect for the multidisciplinary expertise of the governing board. Personally, I want to introduce perspectives that focus on biodiversity, nature loss and interaction. My point of view is strongly global as I have been fortunate to spend much of my life in the Amazon at the equator, far from Finland.”

As one who has spent a lot of time in the rainforests, your view of the Amazon is exceptionally perceptive. If everybody in Finland understood two things about the Amazon, what would you want them to be?

“First, I would like people to understand that when we talk about the Amazon, we are not just talking about some distant rainforest, but an area the size of Western Europe that affects everything on a global scale: climate, water management, food production. As the Amazon affects the everyday life of everybody in Finland, its importance cannot be overstated.

Second, the Amazon is often thought of as an oasis of biodiversity – which it certainly is. However, in addition to that, the area is also an oasis of human cultural diversity. The Amazon is home to hundreds of indigenous peoples. We, who are outsiders, often tend to view the Amazon as nothing other than a vast natural resource – but if the Amazon is destroyed, it means the destruction of the home of a very large number of people.”

One last question: What are you studying right now?

“Right now, I’m focused on leading the BIODIFORM and BIODIFUL consortia. In addition to the Biodiversity Unit, the BIODIFORM consortium (SA Profi6) includes, for example, the University of Turku School of Economics and the Faculty of Humanities. Our focus is on the interface between biodiversity and the economy. The consortium is rethinking biodiversity in a new way beyond a purely scientific perspective. Looming in the background are big questions on how we could bring about important changes that can stop global biodiversity loss. Those involved include economists and historians, among others, and we will work together with companies.

As for the BIODIFUL Consortium (SA STN), its scientific and societal goal is to support and enable change towards leadership that respects biodiversity at the individual, organizational and societal levels. The multidisciplinary consortium of four universities and research institutes brings together the natural and human sciences, including biodiversity research, sustainability science, environmental management, leadership, consumer research and marketing, futures research and food sciences. The practical result of the consortium will be a multi-level BIODIFUL leadership model, a self-organizing BIODIFUL network and a BIODIFUL leadership forum. The Finnish name for BIODIFUL is LUMOAVA. It refers to the enchanting beauty of biodiversity. To stop biodiversity loss is to protect life.

In the background there is my ongoing zoological study of the Amazon, in which I focus on the search for species that are not yet known. In my research, I try to find species and explain why they are important. My research work gives me a lot of energy, but I also love being able to do many different things at the same time, in collaboration with a diversity of people and disciplines.”


Pictures: Joel Haapamäki

Get to know the other board members

Niina Bergring
Simo Honkanen
Timo Kairesalo
Johanna Kentala-Lehtonen
Tellervo Kylä-Harakka-Ruonala
Pertti Lassila
Jari Niemelä
Niko Soininen
Ilari E. Sääksjärvi
Tuula Varis