Human-animal relations increase collaboration between humanities, social sciences and environmental sciences

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Kone Foundation, based In Helsinki, Finland, funds research in humanities, social sciences, environmental sciences, as well as artistic research, but since we appreciate crossdisciplinarity, we consider it important to fund projects which combine approaches from these fields. This is what our thematic funding call in 2018, entitled Our Vital Neighbours, was about. More precisely, Our Vital Neighbours meant for us the relations between human beings and social actors, on the one hand, and non-human living beings, the incredibly diverse group of organisms and animals, on the other. We encouraged cooperation between the fields of ecology, social sciences and humanities. The projects we funded had to be based on academic research, but they could involve civil society members, journalists, or artists. The projects last a maximum of four years.

The questions we asked were the following. How do we take into account in our everyday lives our neighbours from other species on which human life is totally dependent? What kinds of relations do we have with such neighbours? What kind of a role do our neighbours from other species have in a constantly urbanising world? How do humans discuss and have discussed their animal neighbours in philosophy, religion, art, literature, social media, non-fiction and academic literature? And finally, which societal structures enable the continuation of human and non-human life on Earth?

Thus, we could expect anything between Latourian sociology, ecocriticism, and biodiversity science. We hoped for great applications, but their quality still surprised us in a positive way: important new ideas and forms of collaboration are emerging. Many projects have a long term diachronic approach. A convincing example is the research project led by Miira Tuominen, professor of philosophy at Jyväskylä University, which focuses on the role of other species in ancient Greek and medieval Islamic philosophy and literature. The group, which received a grant of 513,000 euros, promise to challenge our conceptions of the relationship between humans and nature, how such a relationship was first conceived, and where the contrast between the two stems from. Ethnologist Jyrki Pöysä’s research group from the University of Eastern Finland received a funding of 326,600 euros. They will use a post-humanistic approach to answer the question of how humans’ “archaic” relationship with nature became, after industrialisation, the nostalgic, critical, or apathetic relationship it is today.

The meanings and emotions attached to trees will be investigated by professor of forest geography Eeva-Stiina Tuittila and her colleagues with the aid of a grant of 211,000 euros. Her group of artists and environmental and humanities scholars from the universities of Eastern Finland and Turku seeks to help community planners take into account the meanings and emotions which humans attach to their biological and non-biological environments.

Some projects will focus on the relationship between humans and microbes. Harri Alenius, professor of medicine at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, will lead a project of 229,800 euros investigating the relationship between human microbiome and allergies. The geographical areas of focus are the Finnish and the Russian Karelias, which are particularly interesting due to the immense difference in the standards of living between the two sides of the Finnish-Russian border. A sociological angle to the study of microbes is provided by Salla Sariola, whose research group will look at the efforts of modern societies to get rid of microbes. Their aim is to produce new knowledge for health policymakers, animal care specialists, and medical scientists. Sariola’s group, with academics from the universities of Helsinki, Turku, and Tampere, received 421,000 euros in funding.

Finally, to return to the furry animals, a research group led by ecophysiologist Thomas Lilley will investigate how humans and bats live side by side and then search for ways to improve that relationship. Scientists from the University of Helsinki and the Finnish Museum of Natural History will delve into the distribution of bat species in Finland, a group of vital but poorly understood neighbours, by using academic methods and citizen science. Human attitudes towards bats are often negative, even though humans and bats benefit from one another in Finland. In addition, environmental scientists Katarina Meramo and Kati Suominen will research the influence of environmental changes on bats. Meramo’s focus is on the characteristics and behaviour of bats, while Suominen, with the aid of citizen science, will examine the species’ distribution and conservation needs. In all, Lilley, Meramo and Suominen received 456,500 euros in funding.

The thematic call Our Vital Neighbours, in which grants worth 3.8 million euros were awarded, was part of a five-year Kone Foundation programme entitled The Changing “Neighbournesses” of Finland, started in 2016. At the heart of the programme is the issue of how humans, groups, states, and cultures can live close to each other, communicate and create a sense of community despite different backgrounds, languages and sets of values. In our 2018 thematic call, the scope of the programme was expanded to include non-human life as well. In all, Kone Foundation awarded 29 million euros in grants for academics and artists in 2018.

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