The future depends on research
Vísindavøka 2019 - the Faroese Researchers' Night - was held on September 20th. The event took place in Sjóvinnuhúsið, which hosts parts of the University of the Faroe Islands. Chik Collins, newly appointed Rector of the University was invited to give a speech to the audience on research and the importance of sciences. The audience at Vísindavøka is primarily students from the local gymnasiums and staff from the research institutions.
Here is the speech:
"Hi, everyone. It’s very good to be joining you today for this wonderful event. Thank you for inviting me, Annika and Maria. You made my day!
As you probably all know, I have recently become Rector of the University of the Faroe Islands. One of the reasons I was offered the job is because I have long been a researcher, collaborating with others to try to produce new and useful knowledge which can help to bring about change for the better at some level in the world. Because that is what research seeks to do – from the small scale and the local, to the grand scale and the global, and everything in between.
But another important reason I was brought to the Faroes is that in my past employment I have been able to work with others to support them to do research, and also to support them to generate resources to enable them to do it – to pay for their time, their travel, their equipment, and all the other things they may need. That matters a lot in research. It needs to be resourced.
As you may have read in the splendid newspaper that has been produced for today’s event, I hope to be able to do more of that here in the Faroe Islands – to encourage research focusing on the needs of the Faroe Islands, economically, socially and culturally, and to support researchers in the pursuit of the resources that will help them to do it.
Please don’t think that this suggests that the Faroe Islands is backward regarding research. In many ways, the opposite seems to be true. Here is a population of some 50,000 people with its own University which strives to foreground research and is producing work of international standing and indeed of excellence. This society also has its own Research Council and then a wide network of institutions involved in their own ways in research, some of them represented here today. I wonder if there is anything else quite like it in the world. It may well be the case that we have here one of the more – perhaps one of the most – research-oriented societies around. The even better news is that there are quite feasible ways to make more and better of what we have here.
But why is all this something to get excited about?
First, perhaps most obviously because good research is at the root of so much of human progress. It’s fundamental to how we make things better in our world. Successful communities, organisations, companies and societies – in the past and in the present – are those which have made use of research of various kinds and in various ways to achieve great things – to produce things better, quicker, more efficiently, more safely; to understand diseases and develop treatments and cures and to extend healthy life expectancy for people; to understand how young people learn and to teach them better, and so on. So, research is definitely good and something to be excited about. The future depends on it!
But the realities of our present world add a further dimension to the picture. We are beset by profound and interacting global crises – of climate change and sustainability; of deep-rooted global economic and financial instability which causes great distress to many (and which has impacted heavily on the Faroe Islands in the past, I understand); of growing inequality and social injustice (which is not so evident in the Faroes but impacts on us nonetheless, because it is bound up with all the other interacting crises); and of political change and turmoil (look at the UK at the moment, for instance, and at much of Europe in recent times). We need more and better research to understand and deal with these crises, for sure. But we also need to understand better how knowledge can help us to address them.
This is in a way complex and in a way simple. One would hope that when societies and governments have the knowledge to understand problems they will act rationally to address them. But things are often not quite so straightforward – and especially with regard to some of the biggest challenges, like climate change. Governments can fail to act sufficiently, and the public itself can decide, in the words of one British politician, that they are ‘tired of experts’. And across the world at the moment, it has been shown that there is something of an industry shaping people’s thinking in precisely this kind of way – not least through social media – actively shaping people’s mind sets to be hostile to good research, to facts, to evidence and to the basic truths that they help us to establish about the world, and instead fostering ‘alternative’ ways of seeing and understanding the world, often based on myths, unfounded personal beliefs or prejudices, and at times simple untruths.
This is not just an interesting intellectual or philosophical dispute, it is a very troubling conflict on which the future and well-being of very many people, and perhaps all of us, depends. It too is being researched and it needs to be researched much more.
But there is a further element here. It seems reasonable to think that if increasing numbers of people who are perhaps not themselves ‘researchers’ are nonetheless able to think like researchers, then the more robust the public in a society is likely to be in the face of the problem. Such people might have been educated in what I would call a ‘research modality’ – not simply receiving knowledge and answering questions, but asking questions and themselves producing knowledge, as a fundamental part of their education. That is increasingly the form that education is now taking internationally.
In a society which is both education oriented and research intensive, as I believe Faroese society is in relative terms, we are likely to be part of the way there, which is good. But if we also move further to educate people in a research modality then things will be further strengthened. It’s something I think we should be discussing here on the Faroe Islands – not least because it is just a better and more contemporary and enjoyable way to learn, but also for the other reason I have been talking about.
Of course, people are entitled to their own ways of seeing and understanding the world and their own beliefs, but these should not be confused with facts which have been proven by research and evidence to have validity or truth.
So not only successful, but ‘healthy’ and rational societies, in economic, social and cultural terms, require research and ‘research mindedness’ more than ever. In many ways the future of the world literally depends on it. And that requires not only that we have a strong emphasis on research in the Faroe Islands, but that we make the most of the enviable network of research oriented institutions that we have here – that we try to strengthen the connections between them, create more and better collaborations between them, working across subject disciplines as well as across organisations, and that we try to extend the already good connections that we have with the rest of the world and generate new connections too, all of the time building, connecting, collaborating and growing together. And it also means, I think, that we need to ensure that as many of our students and future professionals as possible – natural scientists, social scientists, teachers, nurses, pedagogues, lawyers, linguists, economists and creative artists – are really connected to this process and are taught by people who are strongly part of it – that as learners they become fully acquainted with research and that some part, hopefully a big part, of their learning and development is in a research modality, not simply receiving knowledge and answering questions, but asking questions and producing knowledge.
Let’s talk then about aligning our institutions, our researchers and our education processes to produce producers of knowledge, who can play a part in ensuring that we have more and better knowledge which can be used to create the kind of future people want and deserve, both here on the Faroe Islands and on a much wider scale.
It may be that we are small, but that does mean that we should not think big.
In fact, it is precisely because we are small that we have to think big, pulling together and aligning all that we have to work to a common purpose – and I see a lot of that on the Faroe Islands already, which is great, and gives me a really good feeling for the future of research on the Faroe Islands, and for the Faroe Islands themselves!"