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The return of a top researcher is far from a walk in the park

When a researcher with a long, successful track record changes countries, they’re accompanied not just by their family but also by their research team. This is why not even return migration is that simple.

Juha Merimaa Avatar

Photo: iStock

“This place was as if made for you.”

Of course it was admitted Minna-Liisa Änkö as her spouse himself pointed out. The associate professorship (tenure track) in molecular medicine at Tampere University matched Änkö’s own research interests and career stage. Not only that, but it also fitted in with the couple’s plans to return to Europe after a term of 11 years in Melbourne.

According to Änkö, the fact that the post was in Finland was of little relevance.

“At that stage, I’d already been working abroad for some 20 years, my entire post-doc career. I could just as easily have moved somewhere else. I was only interested in a good place where I could carry out research and teach.”

Änkö studies the RNA molecule that handles communication between the genome and the rest of the body and the cancer treatments based on it. Tampere University has world-class technical capabilities for this.

“On the other hand, there are far fewer staff than, for example, in Melbourne, where there is an academic person responsible for each item of equipment and who can provide any assistance and advice needed.”

Monolingual in her homeland

Änkö’s research group has got off to a good start. Even so, relocating to Finland was not that easy. Änkö says the recruiting process was particularly slow – taking 18 months all in all.

A return migrant who has spent a long time elsewhere would also have needed the same support to start work as other international recruits.

“Because I’m a Finn and speak Finnish, everyone assumed that I would know how to deal with Finnish university bureaucracy, information systems and practical teaching matters. But I knew nothing about them – everything had changed many times over the years.”

Minna-Liisa Änkö

Tenure track -professor, Tampere university
(Photo: Tampere university)

Family brings people back

The good things about living in Finland are that the Änkö family’s son has been able to be in contact with his grandparents more easily. However, he’s lived his entire earlier life in Australia and family was not the actual reason for the move.

“Our three-member family is a close-knit unit and home is wherever we are.”

For many return migrants, however, the decision is based on family reasons such as wanting the children to attend a Finnish school. This was also the case with Sakari Vanharanta, who was granted a Sigrid Jusélius-professorship at the University of Helsinki.

“Our youngest child had just reach school age and we thought that we wanted them to go to school in Finland. Besides which, it seemed a good idea to return to the University of Helsinki, which had given me so much. This, too, made the move seem a natural step.”

Vanharanta, too, had spent a long time abroad. In 2008, he left as a post doc researcher for New York, where he was able to study the molecular mechanisms of cancer tumours. His term these lasted six years, after which, in 2014, he relocated to Cambridge University in England, where he led his own cancer biology research group for eight years. He also found his British spouse, who works in the finance sector, abroad.

Didn’t relocating to Helsinki from one of the world’s most prestigious universities feel like a step backwards?

“I wouldn’t put it that way. I think the University of Helsinki is an excellent place to do research. In terms of possibilities, Biomedicum is just as good as any top university. And the best researchers here are just as good as the best researchers anywhere else. Even though the pay is less than in some institutes, the standard of living is good.”

Foundations help with relocation

When a top researcher relocates from one country to another, it’s often a huge operation involving not just the researcher but also an entire research organisation. Vanharanta wanted to bring his entire research group from Cambridge with him.

This is a fairly big operation, with literally many moving parts. University bureaucracy is a problem in itself and is not always as flexible as needed in such relocations. The Sigrid Jusélius Foundation stepped in to help Vanharanta arrange the finance needed to ensure his group could continue.

Foundations also recognise the problems arising when top researchers relocate. This is why the Finnish Medical Foundation, the Sigrid Jusélius Foundation and the Jane ja Aatos Erkko Foundation launched the new Brain Gain programme, which is designed to help top researchers in the field of medicine to return to Finland from the world at large.

The programme, for which applications can be submitted once a year, is open to Finnish researchers who have carved out a career abroad or who have studied in Finland and who have carried out significant research abroad for at least four years. The programme guarantees five-year funding o €2.5 million for a researcher who relocates from abroad to a Finnish university or research institute.

Sakari Vanharanta

Associate Professor, University of Helsinki
(Photographer: Helena Hiltunen. Photo: University of Helsinki)

Continuity important

Jouni Lounasmaa, Executive Director at the Finnish Medical Foundation, highlights in particular the long-term nature of funding.

“The idea is to provide continuity. Relocating research is slow and laborious, but we thought that a group would usually get off to a good start in five years.”

Minna-Liisa Änkö, too, considers continuity to be key factor. One factor that enticed her back to Tampere was a tenure track post, which enables a career lasting decades and a long-term focus on work.

“But funding for five years is already very promising for a research group. Too often, you have to apply for funding for a few years at a time, which in itself consumes an enormous amount of time and resources.”

However, her future at Tampere is overshadowed by her husband’s situation. Änkö’s husband, too, is a successful medical science researcher but has been unable to find a longer-term position matching his own career stage in Finland.

This means he has to split his time between Finland and Australia. Not an ideal situation.

“We’re following developments, but if a solution isn’t forthcoming in Finland, we might have to start looking elsewhere again.”

The couple’s child attends a Swedish-language school in Tampere and has English lessons to ensure good language proficiency in the event of any move.

“You can do research almost anywhere and we don’t have burning desire to be especially in Finland,” Änkö points out.

At the same time, she reminds us of a bigger issue: if Finland is not an attractive place for people making an international career, this will eventually be reflected in the level of universities.

“Teaching, too, is based on research and without researchers of an international calibre, there can be no teaching of an international calibre either.”

Vanharanta on the other hand is settled in Finland and is not considering a move elsewhere. His British wife, too, has a found employment and enjoys living in Helsinki.

At the beginning of September, Vanharanta switched to leading the University of Helsinki’s Translational Cancer Medicine Programme, which is one of the most prestigious and largest in Finland.

“From my perspective the return move has gone really well. This is a really great place at the top of international research.”

Read more about the Brain Gain programme:

Jane ja Aatos Erkon säätiön uutiskirje

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