Ambassador Mikko Hautala became Ambassador of Finland to the United States in September 2020. Prior to that (2016–2020), he served as Ambassador of Finland to Russia, where he previously worked as Deputy Head of Mission. Ambassador Hautala has worked as Foreign Policy Adviser to the President of the Republic of Finland (2012–2016), was posted at the Permanent Representation of Finland to the EU in Brussels (2002–2007), and served as Attaché at the Embassy of Finland in Kyiv, Ukraine (1998–2001).
Ambassador Hautala spoke with Kim Montgomery, Director of International Affairs and Science Diplomacy at AAAS and Executive Editor of Science & Diplomacy, about Finland’s science diplomacy strategy. This is the eleventh interview in the Ambassador Interview Series.
Kim Montgomery (interviewer): The United States was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic ties with Finland after it gained its independence in 1917. As Ambassador, what do you think are the priorities for scientific and technological collaboration between Finland and the United States? How are those related to Finland’s recent approach of working with individual U.S. states, such as Minnesota,1 Washington2 and Colorado?3 Do you see different benefits in cooperating on the state and the national levels?
Ambassador Hautala: Starting from the last point, my observation has been that we must work at both the state and the federal level. The federal level is important because it is where the political decisions and resource allocations are being made and it gives the big picture. However, in the United States, the engines of the country—whether economic or scientific—are not located in Washington, D.C. Those engines, which bring about practical, tangible elements are located at the state level.
Regarding our bilateral scientific relations, we have a strong base of formal agreements as well as informal channels of cooperation. Additionally, because of the Fulbright system, we now have generations of scientists who have been studying and doing research here, and vice versa. This basis is extremely strong, and it gives us a chance to move our relationship forward.
Our focus, in terms of scientific and technical priorities, is to advance our research cooperation. One of our top priorities are emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, connectivity, and quantum computing. Finland, a small country, is punching above its weight in several fields. In 5G and 6G, Finland has been a global leader, and for quantum computing, Finland is one of just a few countries globally that has built an up-and-running quantum computer, plus we have several globally competitive quantum companies. We are focusing on areas that bring the most added value and where we have relevance.
Montgomery: As you’ve already mentioned, Finland is a strong advocate of strengthening scientific exchanges, with programs such as ASLA-Fulbright that encourage Finnish students to study and conduct research at U.S. universities. Additionally, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture recently established the Team Finland Knowledge (TFK) network, which aims to build partnerships between Finnish universities and institutions abroad. What is the role of these established programs and new initiatives in Finland’s foreign policy?
Ambassador Hautala: We understand that our long-term welfare and competitiveness is based on being an innovative country. Innovation requires a very strong scientific foundation. Science diplomacy tries to make sure that our scientific innovation system is connected with the best countries and institutions in the world, so that we can benefit from those connections, with an understanding that all of our partners also benefit from us.
The Fulbright exchange program, established 70 years ago, is a prime example of these connections. It has produced a binational community of nearly 6,000 Fulbright alumni who have played significant roles in science and higher education, but also far beyond them. Finland’s TFK network, covering nine globally leading countries and regions, is a more recent invention. In the United States, the network is especially useful in connecting Finnish and American actors in basic research and technologies that are in their developmental stages.
There is also a security dimension, especially with emerging technologies, that brings shared values into the picture. There are many fields of technology that we are not comfortable developing alongside countries with which we do not share values in relation to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and more.
Science diplomacy tries to make sure that our scientific innovation system is connected with the best countries and institutions in the world, so that we can benefit from those connections, with an understanding that all of our partners also benefit from us.
Montgomery: Speaking of innovation, Finland was recently ranked as one of the most innovative countries in the world.4 What is the Finnish strategy on innovation, especially on emerging technologies? Additionally, how is Finland working with the United States and other countries to meet its strategic goals, and what role do technology and innovation play in these geopolitical relationships?
Ambassador Hautala: I would say two things about the Finnish strategy for innovation. One is that it requires very strong investments in science, research, and education. Our goal is to use 4% of GDP for research by 2030. The second dimension is public-private partnerships. Even as a small country, we must ensure that companies and the administration connect seamlessly and that both have flexibility to address arising problems. Public-private partnerships have been traditionally very strong in Finland, which continues to be the case.
At the same time, technology is at the very heart of geopolitics. Today’s global divisions emerge not only from pure military power and ideology, but also from standards, algorithms, and the ways in which countries use their technological might domestically and abroad. This makes it even more important to choose partners wisely.
Montgomery: Finland is a member of the Artic Council, an intergovernmental forum that promotes cooperation in the Artic region and is largely focused on issues relating to environmental protection and sustainable development. What is the role of scientists and diplomats in the Council? How does the forum influence international law and science policy, and has that changed over time?
Ambassador Hautala: Finland played a role in the establishment of the Arctic Council in the early 1990s. There were numerous environmental concerns in the North, creating a clear need for more cooperation. The Council’s success over almost three decades has been linked to its diplomatic process, because the countries’ representatives have always been the foreign ministers, with the ministerial council being the highest governing body of the council. But science has always played a really important role, because the council is focused on how to assess and improve the environment in the North, addressing issues from climate change to nuclear waste.
Currently, the Arctic Council is in a very difficult situation because of the unprovoked, illegal Russian attack on Ukraine. The Council certainly still exists, but I think the actual cooperation is now being done among the Arctic 7, without Russia. This is a difficult situation for the Council, because the Russian Arctic is a big chunk of the whole Arctic area. But it seems clear to everybody that, although there remains an interest in broad multilateral collaboration in the Arctic, this is a situation where we can’t go on with business as usual.
Montgomery: That leads to the next question. Before becoming the Ambassador to the United States, you served as the Ambassador of Finland to Russia, and you’ve also served in the embassy of Finland in Kyiv, Ukraine. This gives you a unique perspective on the continued invasion in Ukraine, which you’ve spoken about at length in interviews. Our question is more on science. What role does science play, and what does this continued invasion mean for the scientific enterprise—both in terms of scholars displaced during the conflict and the need to rebuild scientific enterprise after the war?
Ambassador Hautala: Russia is now emphasizing their own national sovereignty on all issues, and science is no exception. Russia is distancing itself from many global or European scientific networks; establishing its own standards of assessment, like university rankings; and nationalizing science. This has influenced scientific communication. It leads to less understanding of us in Russia, and vice versa. It’s a sad development. I do not think this is going to be good for Russian science in the long run, because science is supposed to be global, open, and free.
Also, I think Russia will continue to try to put more resources into security-related fields of research. I think this will increase the trend of countries with similar values engaging in such research, because it’s harder to work together with these fundamental differences.
I also would like to add that I do not think that we will ever return to the scientific cooperation that existed before the war. I view this war as the end of the post-Cold War era and the beginning of a new era in Russia. Just to give an example, Russia used to be geographically both European and Asian, but culturally and economically, clearly a European country. Now I think the economic and political trends point squarely towards the east. I’m not going to say that scientific cooperation will be beyond reach, but I think it’s going to be very different place.
Montgomery: Fascinating. I think that leads to this question about how around the world, and not just in the current crises, we’ve seen a decrease in public trust in science and the acceptance of shared facts. What is the role of diplomats in ensuring reliability of information, and how can countries work together to ensure that that shared factual basis is used in international decision-making?
Ambassador Hautala: There is an old saying that a diplomat is an honest man sent to lie for his government. Therefore, I do not think diplomats can resolve this issue. I think the key role is instead played by schools and educational systems. In Finland, we have media literacy as a school subject, in which we try to train our people to read media critically and understand different agendas. When people are trained at school from early on, they have a healthier picture of the world.
Then, if you’re talking about people who are openly denying science, I think that problem is tied mainly to sociological and political processes that are beyond the scope of traditional diplomacy. Diplomacy is based on trust and communication. Obviously, our communication is supposed to always be trustworthy, but you cannot equate diplomacy with science or scientific guidance, because diplomacy always has an agenda. Any diplomat who says that he doesn’t have an agenda is either not speaking the truth or is a bad diplomat.
Montgomery: We like to end our interviews by asking about must-see travel destinations. In particular, is there anything that you would recommend for someone who wants a glimpse of the science and technology that make Finland one of the most innovative countries in the world?
Ambassador Hautala: For Finland, innovation is about making everyday life better in very practical ways—not just the quantum computer—though we do have that and are working to build an even faster one. Instead, for example, in many countries, most waste is being sent to landfills. In our country, only 1% of communal waste is sent to landfills because we have an efficient recycling system, including using part of the waste to produce clean energy. Meanwhile we still have some of the best air quality in the world.
Scientifically speaking, Helsinki has the strongest concentration of everything. But I think one of the secrets in our country is that we have many centers of excellence in different fields. We have a strong research tradition; for example, Oulu in the west-central part of the country, has a very strong ecosystem of technology. We have the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, which specializes in Arctic sciences, and is home to the Arctic Center, one of the best centers of the Arctic research in the Nordic countries. In Kajaani, we have LUMI, the fastest computer in Europe. So you have a lot of places to go to see different sorts of innovations.
If you have more touristic ambitions, I think you can actually divide Finland into four countries. It’s Lapland, starting from the north, which is a unique place. Then Lakeland in the east and south, with thousands and thousands of lakes. Then the archipelago of Turku to the west, and finally Helsinki in the south. So it depends on what you want.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
- ScienceBusiness, “Finland and Minnesota join forces in sustainable development and energy technology,” September 23, 2021, https://sciencebusiness.net/network-updates/finland-and-minnesota-join-f...
- GeekWire, “Washington state and Finland sign tech-focused MOU, plan to establish smart port in Tacoma,” November 4, 2021, https://www.geekwire.com/2021/washington-state-finland-sign-mou-establis....
- Denver Business Journal, “Colorado Partners with Finland to explore business opportunities,” February 17, 2022, https://www.bizjournals.com/denver/news/2022/02/17/finland-colorado-mou-....
- World Intellectual Property Organization, “Global Innovation Index 2021,” September 20, 2021, https://www.wipo.int/pressroom/en/articles/2021/article_0008.html