Professor Risto Renkonen: “Research is not possible in a ‘Finland bubble’”

Government funding for research has steadily declined, while the funding provided by foundations has increased. Professor Risto Renkonen, the longstanding Chair of the Board for Orion’s Research Foundation, talked to us about the career paths of post-doc researchers and trends in basic research in medicine.

During the nine years that he has served as Chair of the Board for Orion’s Research Foundation, Professor Risto Renkonen has been able to view Finnish biomedicine from a unique vantage point. In his own estimate, he has read some seven thousand grant applications while serving as Chair. This has given him a good insight into what the hottest topics in current research are.

Renkonen’s term as Chair of the Board came to an end at the end of last year, and he says he handed over the baton to his successor in high spirits.

“These years were tremendously rewarding for me. Most importantly, I feel that with the support of my closest colleague, Anu Imppola, and the Board of the Research Foundation, I was able to trim the core functions of the Foundation into good shape. We have learnt how to pick the very best grant applications out of the very good,” says Renkola, who is also Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Helsinki and a Professor of Glycobiology.

The Finnish researcher as part of a larger community

Renkonen has been pleased to see researcher circles become more international. Finland welcomes an increasing number of foreign researchers, which Renkola thinks is a great development.

Risto Renkonen

“We can’t do research in a small ‘Finland-bubble’. I am slightly concerned that Finnish researchers appear to be less eager to go abroad than they were in previous years.”

In Renkonen’s view, it used to be automatic for post-doc researchers to move on to some international unit to continue their research. Nowadays, this is no longer necessarily the case.

“The reason for this is probably the new methods of communication and information sharing. It is nonetheless a shame that by staying in their home country, Finnish researchers rob themselves of the real experience of being part of the international research community.”

The best way to encourage young post-docs to gain international experience is for them to be able to apply for and receive grants.

“As government funding for higher education institutions has declined, the role of foundations in research funding has increased. At the moment, funding provided by foundations has outstripped academic funding, and foundations are currently providing young researchers with more than 300 million euros,” he points out.

Is basic medical research influenced by fashion?

Renkonen finds there is a clear trend in Finnish medical research in a particular direction. The progress is mainly positive, but there have been a few missteps.

“In the past nine years, I have noticed that whatever happens to be in fashion in research can easily grab a researcher’s attention. One example is the widespread interest in analytics and basic research based on gene sequencing. This is understandable, since the sequencing of a single genome these days costs maybe a thousand dollars whereas twenty years ago the cost was closer to a billion dollars.”

Renkonen would never put all his eggs in one basket.

“There should be diversity in basic research, encouraging research based on strong biochemical expertise and the understanding the course of diseases and pathogens. Methods based purely on gene research do not offer many productive solutions,” the professor says.

Research is subject to global threats

If Renkonen could decide, he would widen the scope of Finnish medical research while remaining within specific focus areas.

“For example, scientists at the University of Helsinki concentrate heavily on cancer and gene research. It would be good, however, also to bear in mind the areas that present a global threat. These include infectious diseases, many metabolic diseases and, in particular, antibiotic resistance.”

Renkonen would also give attention to creative leadership in research.

“By this I don’t mean a free-for-all but rather a situation where researchers are allowed sufficient space and opportunities to flourish.”

Renkonen refers to the world of sports as a comparison.

“You start by selecting the best team possible. Give the team five years and the necessary resources. Then you just watch and see how it goes. If necessary, the coach can swap players between teams – start a season anew. Eventually, we might see that the strategy worked: the findings of the cancer team partly tally with those of the metabolic disease team. Perhaps there is a connection!”

Will the patient benefit?

But what happens after basic research? Is the medical profession able to utilise research findings in real life and, ultimately, when taking care of patients? Renkonen thinks it is.

“Again, I will use my university and HUS hospital district as an example. A few years ago we carried out a self-evaluation, looking back at what we had achieved in the past ten years.

The result was that we had published about 20,000 scientific articles and a few thousand doctoral dissertations.”

What was even more important to Renkonen was that, over one ten-year period, 700 new diagnostic methods or treatment protocols were developed for a range of patient groups.

“That is 1.5 protocols or methods per week – and all this at the University of Helsinki and Meilahti alone.”

Renkonen has good reason to be proud of the standard of Finnish research.

“Medical research is incredibly important for the improvement of people’s health and quality of life. We need research, and the results from researchers’ desks and laboratories ultimately change our real lives.”

Text: Essi Kähkönen

March 15, 2021