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Bringing Finnish excellence to Europe

For some time now, Finland has enjoyed an international reputation for a high standard of scientific expertise. Thanks to rigorous national science and technology reform, as well as a knowledge-intensive phase of economic growth in the early 1990s, the country now boasts a gre...

For some time now, Finland has enjoyed an international reputation for a high standard of scientific expertise. Thanks to rigorous national science and technology reform, as well as a knowledge-intensive phase of economic growth in the early 1990s, the country now boasts a greater proportion of researchers than any other European Member State and a sound research-intensive network of universities and institutes. An example of Finnish excellence in action is Markku Kulmala, Professor of Physics at the University of Helsinki. For just over 20 years he has been at the forefront of research into the mechanisms involved in the creation of aerosol particles and their impact on the climate. In an interview with CORDIS News, Professor Kulmala spoke of his research and how Finland got to the top of the class in atmospheric research. He also discussed his experience of participating in the framework programme and its importance to his field of research. Many think of hairsprays and deodorants when they hear the term 'aerosols'. However, aerosols are much more than just that. They are liquid or solid particles uniformly distributed in a finely divided state through a gas, usually air. Ranging from roughly from one nanometer to 100 micrometers, hundreds of thousands of these particles can be found in every cubic centimetre of air that we inhale. Some aerosols occur naturally, originating from volcanoes, dust storms, forest and grassland fires, living vegetation, and sea spray. Human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, also generate aerosols. There are concerns over the health impact of aerosols. 'The particles can cause respiratory diseases, as well as cardiovascular ones, as they enter the blood stream through breathing,' explains Professor Kulmala. But they are also thought to be beneficial as they have a cooling effect on climate. Aerosols can increase cloudiness by acting as 'seeds' on which cloud droplets can form. Known as the 'indirect aerosol effect', this gives clouds more surface area and reflectivity, which translates into greater cooling power. The clouds may also have less chance of producing rain, allowing cloud to remain in place longer, and cool the atmosphere for longer. It is exactly this that Professor Kulmala has primarily been investigating in the last 20 years. 'Particles and clouds reflect sunlight back to space, thus cooling the climate. At the same time, they function as a counterforce to the warming effect of greenhouse gasses,' describes Professor Kulmala. Before the scientist arrived on the scene, very little had been done in Finland to measure the impact of aerosols on the environment. 'When I started studying, there was only one professor at the University of Helsinki working on his topic, and then he moved away,' he explained. After reading many papers and journals on the subject, Professor Kulmala went to the University of Vienna under a bilateral agreement between the Academy of Finland and the Austrian Academy to study this area of environmental science more closely. 'I was very keen to know more about what people elsewhere were doing and so I attended many different meetings and conferences to get to know those people,' said the professor. Today, climate change is considered the most significant of man-made environmental problems, and fortunately countries are wising up to the fact that more funding is needed for research into its causes. 'Gradually national governments and the EU saw the need to invest more into atmospheric science,' said Professor Kulmala. 'Scientists too also saw the need to understand the basic phenomena in order to resolve greater societal problems.' The professor points to the example of Finland, where a lot of funding has been invested to develop teaching courses and university curricula over the past 20 years - there are now Master and PhD programmes. Thanks to a mixture of political will, resources and expertise, Finland has become a world leader in research into the formation and growth aerosol particles, according to Professor Kulmala. He attributes much of this success to early work done at the University of Helsinki. Recognising the need for combined theoretical and practical physico-chemical and biological knowledge to analyse these environmental problems, the university established a division dedicated to Atmospheric Sciences (led by the professor) and set up three field research stations (SMEAR) around the country to measure the relationship between atmosphere and forest in a boreal climate zone. 'The University of Helsinki started aerosol particle measurements at its Hyytiälä-based SMEAR II research station ten years ago,' explains the professor. 'It is the world's longest continuing series of measurements on particle formation and growth mechanisms.' Thanks to these long-term measurements, the professor and his team have been able to show the key role played by aerosols in the radiation balance of the atmosphere. These findings have brought the professor and the university much acclaim at home, and in 2003, he picked up a Finnish Science Award for his contribution to developing this interdisciplinary science. The professor has also gained recognition abroad for his involvement in the Nordic Centre of Excellence on climate change, and the International Global Atmospheric Chemistry (IGAC), a project aimed at increasing fundamental understanding of the processes determining atmospheric composition. In 2004, he received the distinguished International Aerosol Fellow Award in 2004, which is given out by the International Aerosol Research Assembly (IARA). However, gaining visibility internationally is practically impossible without having worked at a European level, says the professor. 'There is no one group or discipline in one country that can solve climate change and air quality. I felt it was important for my laboratory to get involved in these European projects.' Professor Kulmala has been involved in EU funded projects as earlier as the Fourth Framework Programme (FP4). In 1998, he led a project which showed the importance of forests as natural producers of aerosol particles. Since then, his involvement has increased significantly. Under FP6, the professor is participating in five different projects. They range from a network (ACCENT) to promote a common European strategy for research on atmospheric composition change, to a research project on how marine aerosol contributes to the global radiative budget and consequently impacts on climate change. The professor is also involved in developing a Marie Curie training programme on an integrated land ecosystem and atmosphere processes. Although an experience that he does not regret, Professor Kulmala finds that FP6 has presented a more challenging arena in which to participate. This is due to the programme's 'new' instruments such as the Networks of Excellence (NoE). The size of these has left the professor slightly perplexed as to their purpose. 'It's good to have movement of people but the fraction of money going to the science [in NoEs] is too small. The optimum is that there is more money for research itself, salary grants, and less money for travelling. 'Networking is certainly important as there are a lot of people that need to be involved who do not know each other,' notes Professor Kulmala. 'But in Europe, at least in the field of atmospheric sciences, we already know each other well due to the FP5 projects.' Asked to suggest an alternative, Professor Kulmala said that the focus should be on creating smaller virtual networks, where more money would go to research and salary grants. 'If we are to be competitive with the US, having big networks with quite a lot of administrative work is not the best way to go about it,' he noted. The Integrated Project (IP) instrument has also been causing the professor some headaches. He recently finished putting together an IP proposal, which he said was harder to write than his PhD thesis! 'It's the hardest thing I have had to do in my career because, I have to communicate with all the partners and take their views into account. The whole proposal was almost 200 pages long.' A daunting procedure perhaps, but something which the professor said he would gladly repeat for the sake of ensuring the continuity of research in this important field. 'The point is I understand that what is asked needs to be asked. And I am quite optimistic that it will be worth the effort. 'It is very important that research related to atmospheric sciences and climate change issues is as continuous as possible. Whatever the research programmes we start, we must continue them. 'To have measurements for only a couple of months or years is not enough,' says Professor Kulmala. He referred to Finland's record-breaking measurement of aerosols in the atmosphere, and concluded by saying that he hopes the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) will give priority to research areas where long-term measurements are needed.