Maria Brockhaus: Research generates knowledge, sometimes even awkward

Maria Brockhaus comes from a farm close to Münster in Westphalia, Germany. Forest research within CIFOR has taken her not only to the organization's headquarters in Indonesia, but also to Burkina Faso in western Africa, where she had earlier studied the disputes between local farmers and cattle herders, among other things. Photo: Erkki Oksanen

“You cannot buy independent research, but you should invest in it,” says Maria Brockhaus, the professor of international forest policy in Helsinki University. Brockhaus, who started her work in November 2016, is aware that expectations of her professorship are high.

As the principal sponsor of the professorship, the Metsämiesten Säätiö foundation organised a stakeholder seminar last week. One of the seminar aims was to allow Brockhaus to become familiar with the Finnish forest sector.

“I wanted to know what is going on in Finnish forest policy. The seminar was a great opportunity to take a look inside the sector,” said Brockhaus when I met her in her office at the University of Helsinki the day after.

Many wishes were expressed in the seminar as to what should be achieved thanks to the professorship. Brockhaus herself is pleased that professors in Finland are expected not only to be active within research and education, but also to engage and exert an influence in society more generally.

An even broader context was brought up in the seminar: it was said that few people in Finland understand international forest policy, and those that do have their lengthy working careers to thank for it. Policy making and politics are understood as high-level activity only, though in reality, almost all stakeholders from private enterprises to NGOs engage in them.

Politicians need syntheses

The need to increase Finns’ understanding of the European Union was mentioned by many seminar participants. Presenting the speech of Mr. Marc Palahi, Director of the European Forest Institute, who was unable to attend due to illness, Mr. Lauri Hetemäki, Assistant Director of the Institute, stressed the need for synthesizing information.

“It is a paradox of today that we have more and better research than ever, but it is used less and less as a basis for political decision-making. Research focuses on such narrow and specialized topics that politicians are unable to use it,” said Hetemäki.

Brockhaus assures that the European Union and activities linked to will be a part of her work. It is a fascinating entity because of its many levels: member states, various actors within the Commission and the whole spectrum of lobbying.

Brockhaus also comments on the question, asked in the seminar, whether the word ‘international’ in the professorship name refers to the global level, the Union or interregional cooperation.

“It includes all of them. You cannot separate them from each other. All these levels are bound to each other with many links and precisely these links are an interesting object of research,” says Brockhaus.

Word cloud, which Maria Brockhaus attached to her application to the professorship. Word cloud is based on her academic research portfolio.

Rapid action, but not prescriptions

One thing demanded of the professorship in the seminar was that it should analyse ongoing processes and be able to respond rapidly and effectively. However, Brockhaus does not think that anybody from her research group should go to the Ministry and tell them what they have to do.

“Rather we tell what they could do. Providing options based on evidence is one thing, but telling what to do is very different from my understanding of research,“says Brockhaus.

This does not, however, mean that you could not research relevant and current forest policy topics. “Looking at how we acted in my previous job, for example, there’s no reason why it couldn’t work here, too,” says Brockhaus.

Brockhaus previously worked at CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research), where she and her group also participated in international climate conferences.

“Research is not about allying ourselves with any group.”

“One example are the REDD+ negotiations at the Bali climate conference in 2007. There, we managed very quickly to synthesize information needed about deforestation, which we had already studied for a long time,” says Brockhaus. REDD+ is an international agreement which aims at reducing climate gas emissions caused by deforestation and forest degradation.

Representatives of many countries, including European ones, brought questions linked to topics that would come up in the following day’s discussions to the group each afternoon. The answers were delivered in their mailboxes before morning.

“But research is not about allying ourselves with any group participating in the conference, even if we were of the same opinion with them. The same principle applies to forest issues in Brussels,” says Brockhaus.

“We can talk about what groups there are and what they have on their agenda. And we can say what results you are likely to get if you adopt this or that agenda. This is the role of university research. In my opinion it could be useful for policy makers,” says Brockhaus.

Who is missing?

Brockhaus ended her presentation at the seminar by saying: “When doing policy research, one good question is also: who is missing from here? Who, for example, is not at today’s networking event. In other words, whose agenda is not considered relevant?”

At our interview, Brockhaus wanted to return to her question. “I wanted to ask it. The establishment of the Finnish forest sector was there, and of course, I don’t know who does or doesn’t belongs to it. In situations like this it is always interesting to ask, who is not there,” says Brockhaus.

It seems to have been a good question, because so many wanted to know what she meant by it, says Brockhaus.

“This is something that I didn’t expect. I hope that those who were there will help me to understand, why this is such a remarkable question.”

Brockhaus says that she had noticed the absence of NGOs. To her, the role of NGOs presents an interesting set of problems. She thinks that the professorship may also have a great significance with regard to such questions.

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

“Albert Einstein has said that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. This is my favourite quotation and here, too, there may be much to be learned from it,” says Brockhaus.

On the other hand, since the early 1990s ENGOs have been invited to all significant processes and projects as regards the administration and other aspects of Finnish forest policy. Forest companies are in daily dialogue with them, as are the organisations of forest owners.

So whatever the way of thinking that has led to our problems today, the ENGOs have been a part of it for a long time.

Brockhaus replies that while she does not “know the history of effective participation and consultation in the Finnish forest policy arena, business as usual will most probably not work in face of the many challenges ahead for forests and those dependent on forest ecosystem services.”

Fresh mindsets and new coalitions and incentives might provide new and needed ways forward. “Credible analysis and evidence on what worked and what did not can be useful despite the fact that it may cause awkwardness,” says Brockhaus.

Or, as Brockhaus says: “You cannot buy independent research, but you should invest in it.”

University of Helsinki, Department of Forest Sciences

Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR

European Forest Institute

Metsämiesten Säätiö Foundation



Hannes Mäntyranta

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