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Research Funding Expert Marja Makarow: Discoveries Aren’t Made Without Risks

Research funding expert Marja Makarow tells us her four theses about how Finnish science could be improved.

Text: Reetta Mikkola

It happened somewhat by accident. When Marja Makarow was named Professor of Applied Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, along with it came the position of vice-rector in charge of research and innovation. But having an influence surprisingly began to interest Makarow more than research. She did not return to the laboratory.

Now Makarow has been working in the box seat of science policy and funding for over ten years, in the management of the Academy of Finland and the European Science Foundation, for example. There, she has been involved in making decisions over research grants, among other things. Here are her theses for better science.

”No one is interested in the application of mediocre research.”

1
Research has to change the world

Makarow is worried by how little attention has been paid in Finland to the influence of research.
”For example, the Academy of Finland doesn’t require societally beneficial impact even from its Centres of Excellence.”
Makarow hopes that researchers toiling away at basic research would consider how their research could change the world. Young researchers have a key role in this shift in attitudes.
“An older, distinguished researcher who hasn’t thought about the broader influence of their research won’t start thinking about it in their later years.”

2
The foundation has to be maintained

Simply talking about applying the results of research will not bear fruit unless the fundamentals are in order, Makarow reminds us.
“The high quality of research is behind everything. No one is interested in the application of mediocre research. For that reason basic research funding must not be forgotten, even if innovations are the aim.”
There is room for improvement, but despite cuts in funding there is no reason to despair: research funding in Finland is still in good shape according to Makarow. In addition, Tekes supports innovation activity through public funds. That is somewhat unusual elsewhere in the world.

3
Mentors for young researchers

Makarow received excellent guidance while she was doing her thesis and post-doc research. But something was still missing.
“I would’ve needed a mentor in relation to important career-related decisions,” Makarow explains.
“Young people require mentoring and support, but it is not the best quality that us Finns possess.”

That is why Makarow would like young researchers to have mentors who would guide them forward. Older researchers could take them under their wing and teach them everything: not just the secrets of research, but also how to seek funding. There is a lot of tacit knowledge in the world of research, which is not always passed on.

”Whenever ambition is high and something new is being done, the risk increases.”

4
A funder has to take risks

However, Makarow thinks that there is one thing above all others in the funding of science. You have to dare to take risks. It is not only about the number of research grants, but also about allocating them to completely novel research ideas. Makarow has been involved in awarding the Millenium Technology Prize to researchers who have put forward especially bold research ideas and developed revolutionary innovations.

When new ideas are put forward in research, the results are uncertain.
“Very ambitious research projects should be funded. Whenever ambition is high and something new is being done, the risk increases. That has to be accepted,” Makarow says. She approaches the issue from the positive side: it is not essential to talk about risks, but ambition.

According to Makarow, in order to understand the importance of ambitious research you have to also look at social innovations.
”The entire functioning of society is based on the information that science has produced. We easily forget what research has brought us: tools, mobile phones, heating, buildings, healthcare, just about everything! That’s why research is necessary.”

BIO

Marja Makarow is the director of Biocenter Finland and a Doctor of Biochemistry. Among other things, during her long career as an influential figure in science policy she has worked as the vice president for research at the Academy of Finland, the chief executive of the European Science Foundation in Stasbourg, and as the University of Helsinki’s vice-rector and the vice chair of the Aalto University Board.

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