Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Thoughts on Life and Science in Finland

Below is the submitted draft of an article I wrote on the topic of life in Finland and science in Finland for the magazine of the Finnish Academy, who have provided funding for my research there and who wanted some critical perspectives from their foreign professors in the Finland Distinguished Professor program...


When one moves abroad there are various phases of adjustment one goes through – initially one becomes fascinated with the new country and sees all the advantages over the familiar environments of home. Once the novelty wears off, it is said that one exaggerates the negative aspects of the new country and culture in their mind’s eye, but that after one successfully survives this morning-after hangover, they accept the bitter with the better, and reach a stable and healthy equilibrium. The timing of my being requested to write this article about my experiences with life and science in Finland comes for me at a less than ideal time, as I am now waking up to see Suomi-neito without her makeup on, after spending my first year living and working independently in Finland. Of course, this is a transitional phase until I get used to seeing her, warts and all, and that now they seem exaggerated because of the culture shock and frustrations inevitably associated with immigration. Finding myself frustrated in attempts to write fair and balanced academic prose on the topic of life and work in Finland in this context, I opted to present my experiences with these matters through more of a life-history approach, to balancing the highs and lows that are inevitable in every cross-cultural relationship.

Personally, I have been a frequent visitor to Finland since 1992, when I was a very, very young graduate student. Since that time, I have spent an average of 1-2 months a year in Finland, split across 3 – 4 visits. I was infatuated with the country, the people, the culture, the work environment, the climate (my first visit was during an October blizzard), and especially the cuisine (yes, unlike Jacques Chirac, I absolutely love läskisoosi, kalakukko, and makkaraperunat). During my graduate student years as well, I was motivated to study the Finnish language at Columbia University (where it is taught in the department of Germanic Languages, oddly enough), including even one semester devoted to reading Kalevala.

On a professional level, working in Finland was an amazing experience for me as a young student, because scientists were taking advantage of Finland’s unique population and family resources to apply experimental strategies that were unthinkable in Southwestern Europe and the USA. At the time I started here in the early 1990s, there was not a lot of funding in human genetics, but people made more advances here than in the US because they were forced by austerity to be creative and exploit the natural experiment that characterized the Finnish population history. As a statistical geneticist, I was provided with many novel and interesting questions to apply my quantitative modeling skills to, and without doubt both I and my Finnish colleagues benefitted from this collaborative relationship synergistically. Working here, I was exposed to statistical and population genetic issues that scientists working elsewhere never thought about much until recent technological advances enabled them to see the same phenomena in their own populations. These observations have recently been re-discovered to great fanfare by scientists working in larger populations outside of Finland, by many of the same people who had earlier claimed these phenomena were not likely to be generalizable or relevant outside of small isolates. Of course following the undeniable successes in Finland most US-based geneticists have sought collaborations outside the US where more appropriate populations for genetic study can be found. Finland taught the world a lesson that it seems to have forgotten itself in their recent drive to emulate the “big science” and “technology driven” efforts promoted by the larger countries in Southwest Europe and the USA.

I was further impressed by the educational system in science in Finland, and its “big picture” emphasis on thinking and understanding all aspects of a problem. This was in stark contrast to the “trade school” microspecialization mentality of human genetics training in the USA, where most Ph.D. students working in gene mapping projects have the same amount of creative scientific input on their projects as lab technicians who are not receiving a Ph.D. for the same work. In the early to mid 1990s, when I was myself a student, I was very impressed by the way Finnish students were much more interested in discussing science in a more philosophical and “out of the box” manner. That is to say they were more interested in the “what?” and “why?” questions of science than the “how?” questions of engineering. I do not intend to trivialize the latter. Engineering and technology are critically important – perhaps more important to society than science. However, the goals of human geneticists are scientific – to use technology to ask questions about nature. Many of those Finnish students I speak of have now gone on to promising careers in Finnish academia. I would hope that the Finnish Academy devotes equivalent effort to promoting and supporting the career development of these highly talented young Finnish scientists as they do in recruiting foreign experts, as the biggest problem in Finnish academia is that there aren’t enough positions for the many talented young scholars to return to after successful postdocs abroad. More opportunities should be provided to them, as their freedom to explore scientific areas of their own interests represent the most promising prospects for the future of science in Finland. The greatest scientific discoveries are always made by the youngest, freest minds working without the biases and vested interests of the entrenched scientific establishment (i.e. those with the power in a “one professor per department” system).

On an academic level, as a scientist who was quite successful in publishing articles in a field in which research costs were relatively small, I quickly discovered the most significant factor in career advancement in American academia (in medical sciences, at least) was not the quality of one’s research, but rather to the size of one’s grants. This is largely because the private university system in the USA is largely funded through the overhead universities receive, which can exceed 60 cents for every dollar we bring in. As a result, American universities are run more like businesses than centers of intellectual inquiry, and there is enormous pressure to spend one’s time trying to bring in more and more money, rather than actually teaching and doing research. This has led to an academic culture in which “big science” is overvalued. In Finland, the bias seemed to go in the opposite direction, in that career success is evaluated by an equally unfair standard – number of publications. As I had published tons of papers at minimal monetary cost, I obviously saw the Finnish model as one in which I could thrive. And the opportunity to thrive was provided to me initially through a visiting professor position I held at the University of Helsinki from 2003 – 2006, through which I received also a research grant from the Finnish Academy, and more recently this opportunity has been expanded and extended through the generosity of the Finnish Academy’s FiDiPro program through 2010. This extremely generous program has afforded me the opportunity to expand my research activities in Finland and to collaborate with more research groups by funding the students and staff I needed to make my research happen. In the US I had more than enough funding as well, but because the dollar amount was not large, I received little administrative support, in such areas as hiring and obtaining space for the staff I attempted to hire. This represented a huge advantage of the Finnish system, that I had talented and helpful administrative assistants working with me to navigate the financial side of things (though getting an accurate detailed accounting of transactions and balances on the grants has been surprisingly challenging). I honestly hope to make optimal use of this opportunity, and hope to have the opportunity to extend this collaborative relationship once this funding runs out after 2010, as I am grateful for the opportunity to work collaboratively with my Finnish colleagues and friends.

Of course, once I bought an apartment, started working and living in Helsinki half the time, and became a resident rather than a visitor seeing Finland from the vantage point of a local, I started to realize that while many of the advantages I described above were legitimate, many were more illusory upon closer examination. My earlier experiences were largely from the perspective of Dian Fossey in “Gorillas in the Mist” rather than from the perspective of a fellow gorilla. As a New Yorker, I was shocked by the extreme pressure to conform to a narrow range of cultural norms. For example, the idea that one should expect apartments in downtown Helsinki to be as quiet as Lapland seems absurd to a guy who was born in Manhattan, plays the tuba, and likes to watch sports from the US with his fellow expat friends, often accompanied by boisterous discussions (quite often about Finns). Speaking of conformity, the most personally shocking conversation I ever had was with a high school principal in Finland who proudly told me that not one student in his school would vote for the Republican candidates (as I typically do) in the US presidential elections. It is not that his political view surprised me – even the irony of people wearing Che Guevara shirts to peace demonstrations goes unnoticed here – it was a shock that any academic would brag about the lack of diversity of opinions and attitudes among students he was charged with educating. My earlier impression of Finland was that the Finns challenged the status quo, were open-minded to new ideas, and encouraged “out of the box” contrarian thinking. Upon closer examination, however, it appears that much of what I inferred to be indicative of lively open-minded intellectual debate was rather the expression of ideas that merely differed from mainstream American views with a narrow internal spectrum.

“Change” is not always for the better. Europeans have been trying to remake their science funding apparatus modeled on the US funding system – encouraging a smaller number of large collaborative multinational projects to the detriment of the smaller hypothesis-driven projects. The EU grant system, for example, has modeled itself on all the negative excesses and bureaucratic complexity of the US system while adapting few of the positive characteristics – such as the emphasis in the US on smaller investigator-initiated research projects which generally lead to more creative individual thinking. When bureaucrats in funding agencies decide on scientific initiatives, rather than letting the marketplace of ideas sort out good from bad, one tends to dilute the creativity that scientists are able to employ. It is obvious that smaller countries with smaller resources are not going to outspend the US and UK. Thus, the best way for smaller countries to be successful is to pursue approaches that are different and contrarian. This is exactly what Finns did in the 1980s and 90s in human genetics – exploiting their unique advantages and resources, rather than emulating the American approach.

In the end, while life and work in the USA has many downsides which are beyond the scope of this blurb, many of the advantages of the American system only became clear to me after living abroad and experiencing Finnish (and previously, British) culture and society first hand. As is the case for most immigrants, I have become more pro-American through my experiences living abroad, from social bonding with the American expat community, to the frequent call to rhetorically defend my country and society in discussions with my Finnish friends, especially during this election season, where my attitudes diverge sharply from the Finnish mainstream. Further, my experiences living in a society that values social conformity and harmony over individual rights and freedoms here in Finland have made me even more American and more libertarian than I was before I came here. As I said from the outset, my current mindset is admittedly biased by the phase of the immigrant adjustment cycle I find myself in at the moment, and surely with the passage of time, the warts underneath Suomi-neito’s makeup will become endearing, and the passion I felt for her since my first visit will inevitably reassert itself.