Positioning research in global context

What role does my research play in the big picture? Do I need to care about the global challenges or my university's strategy?

The big picture

Research topics can sometimes be very specific and narrow, or they may not be immediately recognisable in the wider context. If you are working on an algorithm, it might be difficult to instantly point out how that helps tackle global challenges like poverty or inequality. For young researchers, it might even be difficult to recognise their role in a bigger research project led by a professor and a big team, often with multiple partners from different countries and organisations, where work is divided into work packages and one researcher may only work a very specific subtask.

That is why it is important that researchers are familiar with the overall research plan and aims of the project, and the strategies and priorities of their:

  • Research unit
  • Faculty
  • Focus area/profiling activity
  • University

When these outline how research is positioned in relation to the global challenges - such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals - in a meaningful way, it is easier for researchers to define their role in the big picture.

From scientific community to grand challenges

The picture below shows how researchers are a part of a research group or unit and the scientific community as whole. The scientific community has its own priorities and hot topics which are subject to peer-review and debates in different forums such as conferences and journals. Some topics or approaches may take a priority in the given field until they are questioned, revised or even abandoned, and a paradigm shift takes place. A researcher's work is in turn influenced by these processes.

On an institutional level, a researcher is a member of faculty, university (or a research institute), which in turn are a part of society at large. In countries like Finland where universities are primarily publicly funded, tax payers have an invested interest in what they do.

That means that elected officials who make decisions on funding will channel tax money into national priorities. And many of those national priorities are issues that derive from the EU, or globally recognised trends that affect us all. In short, research is never conducted in a vacuum: the scientific community is impacted by several policies concerning local and national as well as European and global priorities.

Maximize the impact by communication

To maximise impact, it is important to remember that communication between the different players is a two-way process in which researchers participate in scientific discussion and progress with their outputs, and the scientific community provides new knowledge that in turn affects decision-making, and has an impact on what requires local and global attention. Recognising the various policies and decicion-making mechanisms is therefore relevant, and also helps in identifying the right stakeholders for your research.