I prepared some comments for the research strategy focused panel discussion which took place in Tampere today. The actual discussion was lively and diverged slightly from these notes of mine, but gist of the comments below are still relevant. Thanks to all fellow panelists, and to Professor Johanna Kujala who acted as the Chair, and whose questions gave direction to the panel.
Meaning of the university strategy?
It is the umbrella – a way to ascertain that there is a shared vision of the direction where we are heading in this university. It is mostly relevant as a very general level communicational tool about our identity as a university. It is also useful in some cases where you need to communicate the general character and direction of the university to some outside stakeholder, funding organisations, etc. The crucial problems we have faced are not really at the level of strategy, but in the level of ‘tactics’ – how the strategy is actually implemented in practice. If the university makes radical cuts to the key support service personnel, and decides to give away university buildings, it directly hits into the ability of research and teaching staff to do high quality teaching and research. Constant structural changes, managerial language and tactics also have negative impacts to the trust, sense of community and commitment of staff, which are keys for making strategy real and operational, not just a nice decorative element.
Is it ok for Tampere University to be in the “middle-class” as a research university?
There is important foundational work particularly in education of new generation academic professionals, experts and knowledge workers that our university needs to fulfil for the Finnish society. We cannot simply discard those needs, and just put all our resources to doing cutting edge research in areas where we could have potential for it. We can aspire to do our best with the resources that we have. There is an underlying, urgent need for research funding reform in Finland; meanwhile, there is room for using external research funding and basic funding (which just about covers our basic teaching and admin costs) more smartly. I particularly see potential in providing early stage career researchers more opportunities for creating new university courses from areas that they currently do research on. Investments into building the foundation in education and research are crucial for the long-term goal of making the whole university prosper. I am not in love with the various common metrics-based rankings of which universities are best, and which are mediocre. The reality is more complex and nuanced.
What is the unique profile of Tampere University, and where we should aim in next 10 years?
From my perspective as a researcher of culture and society, Tampere is internationally known and special as a leading centre for studies into technical-cultural changes, societal transformations, new media, games, health and multidisciplinary innovation. In 10 years, we can aspire to have achieved significant outcomes and contributions by building on the existing strong areas, but also expanded and provided opportunities for growth in new excellent openings of research.
How about the role of societal impact vs scientific quality?
I believe we can combine the scientific and societal impact, and that is also the strategy that our Centre of Excellence in Game Culture Studies follows. We work in close contact and collaboration with cultural and societal stakeholders in our area (e.g., game museums, game developers, player organisations, libraries, grant organisations, ministries, educators, etc.) and implement research in a manner that both produces new insights and breakthroughs in science, theoretical and historical frames for understanding the new phenomena, as well as practical interventions that hopefully contribute to ongoing changes in game culture and society in a positive manner. (See the CoE-GameCult Impact Stories for more of our work in areas such as: game cultural literacy and agency in society; play in public spaces; getting ‘demoscene’ recognized as UNESCO cultural heritage; well-being and e-sports; opportunities for inclusive game creation.)
Balance between teaching and research?
Research-focused professors can of course be relieved from teaching altogether. However, I think that contact with students and professors is highly beneficial for both. As I already implied above, one way to balance teaching-research workloads is to actively engage the project researchers, PhD researchers and young postdocs into teaching – preferably from their own research areas, so that the teaching is enriched by the latest work in the field, and young researchers will get important teaching experience into their portfolios and skill base.
How can we get the best people to come and stay at Tampere?
If we create an academic environment which we ourselves enjoy and thrive, it will have positive impacts on our output, as well as to the manner we communicate to our international colleagues. One of the key elements in creating sustainable excellence in research is stability and continuity. We need to have trust in organisation to continue developing university into directions that make sense to academic experts working in the fields where we specialize, and create prospects and outlooks that span decades, rather than a year or two. This is crucial for good people with their families taking the risk of taking root in Tampere. Strategy thus needs to emphasise the value of our working staff and put the people first.
Role of multidisciplinarity?
Multidisciplinarity can take many forms, and it can lead into a confusing cocktail of slightly incompatible approaches and elements, as well as to genuinely transformative science and scholarship. The contemporary world is complex and, in many cases, the joined expertise of researchers coming from several fields is needed to gain a comprehensive picture, develop new methodologies, and to make sense of this all. However, true multidisciplinary excellence is based on solid foundation in disciplinary excellence: the collaborating experts need to have excellent background in the theories, methodologies, tools and implementations of their own, native fields, before they can play reliable roles in multidisciplinary collaborations. We cannot disregard the foundations, as those are needed to train people for working in inter- and multidisciplinary world.
Strategic roles of basic vs. external funding?
As I said, the serious problem we have is that the research in Finland has excessive reliance on external, competitive project-based funding, as compared internationally to other countries with leading-level science. The resources put into endless rounds of application writing are hitting us hard and taking the key staff away from doing the actual research and results. This is something that universities should more actively push into the public discussion and political agenda. With more long-term, solid basic research funding we could achieve more, and make more sustained contributions to both science and society. Such persistence and continuity are crucial for truly high-quality research achievements. As to the current situation, we can do our best to align and use the basic funding in a manner that supports concerted and long-term efforts in building staff, teams and research agendas that carry over short, externally funded project periods.
Basic research vs. applied research?
I see fundamental or basic research and applied research best as mutually supportive: the other provides the foundation from where to make more focused and applied research interventions into innovative directions. In our field, the interventions and interactions with multiple stakeholders provide us with better, and more in-depth knowledge about the ongoing developments, allowing us to make better theoretical and fundamental research. On the other hand, the sustained interactions “in the field” are also crucial for the dissemination and quality-control of our outputs.
How about global challenges and trends (sustainability, internationalization, digitalization) as keys to our future strategy?
If we do not shy away from societal discussions, those development trends will inevitably be informing and integrated into our research and daily work in multiple ways. Strategy should not try to force everyone to study the exact same topics and themes, but a good strategy is inclusive and diverse enough so that it can show how multiple disciplines and academic fields of research can all make valuable contributions, in their respective areas of expertise and application.
More information about the current Tampere University strategy and values: https://www.tuni.fi/en/about-us/tampere-university/strategy-and-key-information.