Interview with Markku Kulmala

We talk to the winner of the Russian Geographical Society’s Fedor P. Litke Gold Medal

October 8, 2015
Markku Lulmala, University of Helsinki
Source: Linda Tammisto

Markku Kulmala directs the division of atmospheric sciences within the department of physics at the University of Helsinki, where he has been a professor since 1996. Since May 2011, Professor Kulmala has been the most cited geoscientist in the world. In August, he was awarded the Fedor P. Litke Gold Medal by the Russian Geographical Society for his work in, among other things, atmospheric sciences, meteorology and climatology. The honour was deemed “very special” because it has seldom been presented to someone outside Russia. 

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Forssa, Finland on 30 October 1958.

How has this shaped you?
Forssa is a small town, and I spent a lot of my time around nature, particularly in the boreal forest. I also spent several summers working in a sawmill and timber-rafting on a small river. This is the background to why I later started to investigate atmosphere and ecosystem interactions.

What was your immediate reaction to winning the medal? Where does this award sit in your list of achievements?
I was surprised but happy. And honoured – it is unique due to its connections to former winners.

What is the significance of winning such an award?
Awards generally will give more visibility to science and, in this case, to the scientific work that I am doing with my collaborators in different countries. Particularly, this win is related to our Pan-Eurasian Experiment (PEEX) initiative. As a multi-scale, multidimensional and multidisciplinary initiative, PEEX aims to tackle grand challenges such as climate change in boreal and Arctic environments [by] establishing new comprehensive research stations.

What does it mean for a non-Russian to win this medal?
It affords opportunities to enhance international links between scientists from different countries and also opens some doors in Russian scientific networks.

Are academics concerned with honours, or is their focus on doing more interesting and impactful research?
We are certainly more interested in new research, new results and impacts. I consider prizes mainly as tools to achieve my main objectives.

You are the most highly cited geoscientist in the world. Are citations the benchmark for a successful academic?
Reputations are based on scientific results and breakthroughs [which can lead to] new visions and initiatives. Citations are one benchmark, but not the only one.

Is research funding for your field readily available?
Although we have received reasonable funding [in the past], our activities need fresh funding continuously. Therefore the present funding situation is challenging.

What is the situation for research funding in Finland? Does the government place enough value on higher education and academic research?
Right now…the funding is going down. This is primarily due to the weak economic situation in Finland. On the other hand, it seems that within our present government’s priority list, research is not at the top.

What should be done to remedy this?
Our government does not understand that with [an] influx of funding it is possible for me [to create] new knowledge and that, from new knowledge, via innovations, one is able to make new money. It is crucial to understand how higher education will help the whole society to meet societal and economic challenges.

Is this funding problem driving Finnish academics to seek work abroad?
Not yet, but the number of them [leaving] might increase significantly in future.

Are Finland’s universities well regarded domestically and internationally? Could the country challenge as global higher education superpower?
Our universities [are] starting to be well regarded globally, particularly in my own area of atmospheric sciences [where] we are a (small) superpower.

Do geosciences get the coverage they deserve or are they overshadowed by more “glamorous” fields?
Geosciences are crucial to answer grand challenges such as climate change, water supply, food supply and so on. But they are not yet fully recognised. There is still somewhat old thinking that if something is useful and has practical importance, its academic merit is limited. However, there are increasing numbers of people who give us full recognition.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up? 
I had in my mind to be either a teacher or an author.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be active and patient.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
Best: new discoveries. Worst: spending my time at airports.

Tell us about someone you admire.
I admire scientists who have started new research fields and opened new insights like biochemist [and Nobel laureate] A. I. Virtanen from Finland. And, of course, the big names in physics.

What do you do for fun?
Cross-country skiing and reading books.

What is the most serious problem facing the global higher education sector?
Lack of respect. There are more and more people who do not respect higher education. This also seems to be the reason for reduced funding in several countries.

If you were Finland’s universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce?
Excellence-driven distribution of enhanced resources for science.


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