HELSINKI, Finland, July 25, 2013 — The overarching idea of the ongoing Finnish government’s reform of the scientific research performed at the governmental institutes was to make improvements that would save money and streamline governance.
Unfortunately, as often happens, the issue is not so simple. There are two sides to this “improvement” coin tossed by the government.
The government’s idea as to transfer all basic research ongoing in governmental laboratories to universities. At first this idea might sound logical and even appealing. Universities do, by default, basic research. Government institutes, according to this “improving” reform, should focus solely on applied research that will directly serve certain specific aims, e.g. radiation safety.
What was forgotten by the government bureaucrats is that any improvements to radiation safety require the knowledge gained from basic research.
We know a lot about the acute effects of large doses of radiation. However, we know very little about the very low doses to which people are exposed in their everyday life, from gas radon seeping from the ground to house interiors (ionizing radiation) and wireless communication-associated radiation (non-ionizing radiation), for example. Our knowledge about the possible biological and health effects of exposures to low doses of radiation for long periods of time (several tens of years) is too limited to make thorough health risk evaluations. Research in the area of long term low dose effects is very much needed to determine whether our radiation protection standards are sufficient or whether they should be changed.
The question seems to be: who should do such research and, as always, who should pay for it?
Funding for radiation research is scarce not only in
Universities have academic freedom. Scientists study what, in their opinion, is the most important and interesting and where the new knowledge is needed the most. However, besides the science, the research directions are also “guided” by the available funding.
Free scientists at free universities do research that is not only important but that is also appealing to the funding agencies. Scientists’ interests easily “drift” where the money is.
With radiation research moved to university settings, the scientists who handle it now, will likely stop doing it because of the lack of funding. Research groups working at government labs always had some research funds coming from the government budget. This is not the case at the universities. Scientists doing “unpopular” radiation research will need to compete for grants with scientists doing research in areas currently considered as “hot topics”. It is easy to guess who will lose in this competition. The next step will be slower or faster drift of the current radiation researchers into better funded research topics.
The “doom” of the basic radiation research will be then completed…
The radiation research in
What made the situation still worse is that the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK) in their zest to meet as fast as possible targets set by the Finnish government reform has closed down the Radiation Biology Laboratory before any plan was developed how to transfer it to the university environment.
The expertise generated in this laboratory was widely recognized in the science world by inviting expert e.g. to testify in the US Senate Hearing in 2009 or to participate in the IARC Working Group evaluating carcinogenicity in May 2011, to name just two examples of numerous.
Only after the laboratory, full of the state-of-the-art equipment and staffed by the very experienced scientists and technicians, was shut down, the STUK bureaucrats begun to fiddle with the idea what to do with it. Nearly all staff was dispersed to other jobs, not always related with their education and experience. One person, an internationally renowned expert, got a yellow slip because his expertise was considered by STUK bureaucrats not anymore useful, even not as a cheap part-time service.
Only after the lab “ceased to exist” the formal negotiations have begun with one of the Finnish universities. Negotiations are not easy because university has own ideas and STUK has no more the upper hand because it has no operating lab to transfer anymore.
Finnish government and Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority (STUK), hand-in-hand, have doomed the much needed radiation research projects and dismantled renowned radiation research laboratory without providing any viable alternatives for the future.
What is more, it seems that the situation in
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