NADRA 2018: Q&A with key note speaker Pia Mäkelä


22 mar 2018

Research professor Pia Mäkelä from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland is one of the keynote speakers at the Nordic Alcohol and Drug Researchers’ Assembly (NADRA) in Oslo 29-31 August.

Pia Mäkelä, what is the theme of your presentation at NADRA 2018?

I will be talking about the interplay between alcohol research and researchers on the one hand and policy making and makers on the other. I will try to reflect what we researchers are needed for in the policy making process, or in the society, especially in the light of the process leading to the recent Finnish Alcohol Act.

What are your thoughts on the impact of expert views in the policy process regarding the Alcohol Act?

Expert views on potential harms were carefully listened to in the parliament committee on social affairs and health – but less so in other committees. In the heated discussion in social media, expert views were just one, contested view among many others, and research-based information did not have a strong hand against feeling-based argumentation. The alcohol industry played a central role in the public discussion.

What were the consequences of this; that the research-based information did not have a strong hand against feeling-based information?

Decisions important for public health and welfare are determined in the Parliament, the parliamentarians listen to the electorate’s opinion, the electorate’s opinions are affected by the public discussion, including that in social media, and the discussions in social media are portrayed to the politicians as the public opinion. The alcohol industry is currently more talented in affecting this discussion compared to people who base their views on public health considerations, whether researchers or advocates. In other words, this was not the only reason for the decisions made, but it did have an impact.

In what ways did the alcohol industry play a central role in the public discussion?

Particularly the brewers’ federation was a central player, who both encouraged the like-minded and was supported and cheered by them. Their attempts to make an impact on the opinions of Finns and policy makers included being active especially on Twitter, with both their own messages and aggressive opposition and challenging of those presenting public health views. They also frequently wrote blogs and sent e-mails to parliamentarians. Their visibility lead to the situation that if researchers were interviewed in discussion programs “alone”, without them or other industry representatives, this was considered by some as partial and unfair.

What needs to be done to ensure that the research-based information will hold a strong position in the society also in the future?

As a research community, we cannot leave the information we produce to lie around in libraries, but we need to ensure that it reaches the audiences it was produced for. Finding the right balance between research, advocacy and policy-making is a challenge, and there is not one solution that would suit all researchers. Being more active in the debate may be required for research-based views to be heard, but on the other hand, being active in the debate easily leads to a view, at least among some, that the active researcher does not provide objective and impartial information.


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