Science and science policy are characterised by expectations. These expectations—as in the field of biomedicine—may be related to describing novel findings, their use in curing diseases or their economic benefits. Previous research has shown that expectations are often communicated with the help of metaphors. In this article, we take a closer look at one metaphor—‘closing window of opportunity’—and examine how it frames discussions about policy and regulatory change in biomedicine through the lenses of urgency and national unity. A key component of the generative metaphor of a ‘closing window’ is the focus on limited time and a sense of urgency related to the creation of an enabling environment for biomedical research and innovations. We focus on two key elements of this framing: international competitiveness and national unity. Moreover, drawing on urgency seems to be a standard response to the changing environment, in which the actors need to continuously guide their actions in new directions, meeting new demands posed by, for example, technological development or regulatory changes. We argue that while the metaphor of a closing window creates room for innovations and competitiveness, it is prone to silence critical discussions, for example on sustainability, responsibility and accountability. This leaves out important discussions about values, benefits and risks. With this analysis, we contribute to discussions about the sociology of (negative) expectations and generative metaphors and show how urgency can remain as a constant state of things.
The Nordics have already embarked on the digitalisation of health. Now, there is a window of opportunity to utilise the competencies and ecosystems of the Nordics in transforming European healthcare systems to meet citizens’ needs and the standards of a digital era. (Pulkkinen, 2017)
This idea was expressed by the director of well-being and health at the Finnish funding agency Tekes in an article promoting the potential of Finland and other Nordic countries to solve the sustainability crisis affecting healthcare. During the past decade, we have attended several Finnish, Nordic and international public seminars and stakeholder events related to health data and technologies, biomedical research, genomic data and biobanks, where we have heard that there is a window of opportunity for utilising Finnish strengths in health technologies and biomedical research and development. We have also read about such a window of opportunity in the media and in the strategy papers written to pursue economic growth in the health sector and promote the use of genome data (MEE, 2014; MSH, 2015). However, unlike in the quote above, other publications often warn that the window of opportunity is seemingly closing. While Finland previously may have had strengths and potentials, the window of opportunity was open only for a restricted time (see also Kingdon, 2014). Eventually, we became interested in the closing window. What is it exactly, why is it closing and for whom or for what reasons? Why is this ‘window’ so important? Is it just hyperbole or a trendy expression circulating in the field of innovation and R&D (e.g., Spicer, 2018), and therefore, merely sustaining hype around cutting-edge science?
This paper uses the concept of biomedicine broadly—biobanks and the growing emphasis on data-driven medicine and genomes are all part of the same landscape. In what follows, the metaphor of ‘the closing window of opportunity’ is contextualised in relation to how it becomes part of advocating for certain policies in the Finnish field of biomedical research and innovations. The metaphor of a closing window is generally used to address the limited time during which it is possible to accomplish meaningful change and thus sustain calls for action (Kingdon, 2014). Previous literature has suggested that metaphors have an important role to play in the interaction between science and society at large, and they are important devices of communication and for creating shared understandings (Väliverronen, 1998). Metaphors are often an integral part of science communication and used to illustrate the possibilities for and methods of employing new technologies and fields (Nelkin, 2001; Stelmach and Nerlich, 2015; Nelkin and Lindee, 1995; Nerlich et al., 2002; Hellsten, 2000, 2008; Nerlich and Hellsten, 2004; Nerlich and Halliday, 2007). However, the window of opportunity as a metaphor does not describe biomedicine, genetics or health data as such, but is instead a persuasive metaphor for taking immediate action—one that is about making political claims in the sense of advocating for certain preferable ends (see also Stone, 2011, p. 159; Kingdon, 2014) rather than describing the scientific research involved or its results as such. In this way, the claims about a closing window relate to the growing need to commercialise research findings, collaborate with companies and gain financial benefits from human biological samples and health data (Tarkkala et al., 2019; Snell et al., 2021; Tupasela et al., 2020; Caulfield et al., 2014; Tutton, 2007).
In this paper, we consider the closing window of opportunity as a generative metaphor (Schön, 1993, p. 137) used to have an impact on ‘how we think about things, make sense of reality, and set the problems we later try to solve’. Generative metaphors frame the issue at hand and identify problems and proposed solutions to those problems. They act as framing devices, making some aspects of an issue more visible while backgrounding others (Schön and Rein, 1994). In our case, the window of opportunity as a generative metaphor indicates certain political and legislative goals and ends by suggesting ways to resolve the threat that the closing window poses for the Finnish research and development environment. The metaphor is a device of persuasion (see also Mio, 1997). An important characteristic of such metaphors is that they simultaneously ‘imply a larger narrative story and a prescription for action’ (Stone, 2011, p. 171). According to Stone (2011, p. 174), there are metaphors that point to inclines and slippery slopes and changes of scale, which then further advance broader stories of success or decline. As Nerlich (2012, p. 32) puts it: ‘Metaphors and compounds are central framing devices and one has to be aware of their implications for social and economic policy, as they carry with them values, assumptions, visions and ideologies which shape thinking and acting.’ The closing window as a metaphor points towards negative developments such as decline, or at least to an opportunity that will have been wasted if the window closes before appropriate actions have taken place. However, on the other side of the coin are the economic wealth and scientific prestige that could be gained.
We combine this idea of the generative metaphor with the work done by Nerlich and Halliday (2007), who similarly argue that metaphors are powerful in persuading people to act and in creating a sense of urgency. Nerlich (2012, p. 35) describes this temporal aspect of metaphors as follows:
Metaphors can be used to shape expectations and visions of the future in an effort to affect social and political actions in the present. They can also be used to orientate users (whether as institutions, groups or individuals) to particular possibilities for action or inaction and thus have an effect on material economic investment and policy. (Nerlich, 2012, p. 35)
This kind of attention to persuasion is also familiar in the sociology of expectations. Expectations, it is argued, bring people together and motivate them, make things happen and stimulate them to coordinate appropriate actions (Borup et al., 2006; Brown and Michael, 2003; Van Lente, 2012). Expectations have the power to reconfigure and reorganise resources towards a particular future and even to mobilise that future today (Brown and Michael, 2003). While much of the literature on expectations has centred on hype and the positive potentials of technologies, Tutton (2011) has analysed the co-articulation of pessimistic and positive expectations, while Nerlich and Halliday (2007) have focused their attention on negative expectations (see also Petersen, 2005). They have written about the ‘early warnings’ in fields characterised otherwise by positive expectations or predictions, such as in biotechnology. According to them, negative expectations can be just as persuasive as positive expectations. However, they point out that if the warnings and negative expectations are not realised, then it can become difficult to maintain the need for action and a sense of urgency (Nerlich and Halliday, 2007).
The above ideas about metaphors that build on the sociology of expectations come close to analyses on the realisation and maintenance of specific socio-technical imaginaries, such as bioeconomy or personalised medicine, and the way they draw on the need to act urgently (e.g., Doezema and Hurlbut, 2017; Tarkkala et al., 2019). One could argue that metaphors as framing devices are an example of urgency as a corollary to driving innovations—a type framing already identified in earlier studies (e.g., Doezema and Hurlbut, 2017). As socio-technical imaginaries about desirable futures attainable with the help of science and technology (Jasanoff and Kim, 2015), metaphors often come with a ‘larger story’ of their own (Stone, 2011). This means that there is sort of a bigger backdrop story regarding what is desirable and can be accomplished with the desired technology or action being advocated.
Our focus in this paper is on how the metaphor of the closing window is used to frame the current, urgent need to foster innovation and research-friendly policies. This temporal underpinning is visible specifically in the aforementioned urgent need to act, in the general sense that time is running out. Felt et al. (2007) and Doezema and Hurlbut (2017) have pointed out that economics and techno-scientific promise create this constant sense of urgency and need to act now. Accordingly, Brown and Michael (2003, p. 6) have presented the idea of commodified time where time is money—and easily wasted. They argue that commodified time is tied to efforts to shorten the time frame to the point at which the expected value generation can begin. In contemporary science, technology and innovation policy, countries and economic areas are in competition with each other. The winners of this competition are the ones able to act fast, and therefore, policymaking is expected to facilitate decisions and guidelines that allow for such developments, even if their actions and decisions would be based on hasty preparation and decision making. An innovation-friendly, enabling environment has been a national goal in Finland more broadly for some time (see e.g., Salminen et al., 2020), and innovation friendliness is a shared goal of decision makers, academic researchers and business leaders alike, even when they do not agree on each and every one of the measures needed. The atmosphere lends itself to the assumption that certain inevitable developments are taking place, and the only barriers are existing social and political conditions (Doezema and Hurlbut, 2017, p. 55). Brown and Beynon-Jones (2012, p. 224) use the term ‘temporal reflex’ to describe the hastiness of political expediency in this sort of an environment. There is a prioritisation of the near-term future and a perceived policy need to respond quickly to short-term assumed opportunities and expectations (Brown and Beynon-Jones, 2012, p. 224). It is this view on urgency that is a crucial part of the theoretical contextualisation of our article. We do acknowledge, however, that in practice certain politics of temporality are always involved in making claims and calls for action. New governments are formed every four years, and if one wants to have an impact on policy outcomes and a share of budgeted money, then the work of persuasion has to be completed within this timeframe (see also Kingdon, 2014).
In this paper, we draw attention to the call for action to be taken in order to exploit the so-called ‘Finnish strengths’ in research and development (R&D) before the window of opportunity to exploit them closes. We are not interested in how, why and by whom certain issues arise and are placed on governmental agendas within a given ‘policy window’ (Kingdon, 2014; Guldbrandsson and Fossum, 2009). Instead, we focus on how the metaphor of a closing window of opportunity frames discussions. We build our approach on previous literature, combining the sociology of (negative) expectations and socio-technical imaginaries (e.g., Brown and Michael, 2003; Jasanoff and Kim, 2015; Doezema and Hurlbut, 2017) with research on persuasive metaphors (e.g., Nerlich, 2012; Aspria et al., 2016; Schön, 1993). We contribute to these ongoing discussions by concentrating on the generative metaphor of the closing window of opportunity as a form of persuasion in the context of negative expectations. We discuss its use in the framing of agenda setting. In doing so, we point to the use of metaphors as a means to create shared understandings and visions (Väliverronen, 1998). In addition, we discuss how this might result in reflexive rather than reflective regulatory action if new regulations and policies are hastily and urgently prepared (see Brown and Beynon-Jones, 2012). The peculiarity of the phenomenon we analyse is that the sense of urgency just seems to be there constantly, and the window never closes. What it manages to do, however, is draw attention to the need to tackle and accomplish matters quickly rather than make thorough preparations and adopt deliberative processes, including wider discussions on the values, benefits and risks related to such endeavours. The remainder of this article is structured as follows. We first introduce our empirical case, data and methods. This is followed by empirical sections, where we connect the use of the metaphor to enabling international competition and the need for national unity and how the metaphor is used repeatedly to respond to any and all challenges. Finally, we conclude by connecting our analysis of the metaphor to existing literature on urgency and expectations.
Empirical case and methods
We focus on the uses of the window of opportunity metaphor specifically in the discussions surrounding Finnish biobanking, health registers, genome data and their related research infrastructures and how they have been framed as assets for Finland. During the past decade, Finland has sought to create an enabling and competitive environment for the use of health and welfare data collected through public services and registers. Many new infrastructures have been founded and legislation renewed to enable faster and more efficient use of social and health data as well as other types of interconnected data. Like other Nordic countries, extensive population registers and digital health records collected as part of the universal healthcare system are identified as particular strengths through which economic gain, new jobs and international competitiveness and attractiveness can be gained (Tupasela et al., 2020; Hoeyer, 2020; Nordforsk, 2017; MSH, 2015). This commitment is visible in, for example, the Health Sector Growth Strategy and its roadmap (MEE, 2014; MEE, 2016) Other valuable identified assets or strengths include well-educated and willing citizens, a genetically unique population, a personal identification number that facilitates a combination of different types of data and enabling and permissive legislation (Sitra; Tarkkala, 2019). As we will demonstrate in the analysis, the window of opportunity metaphor is associated with the assets and strengths of Finland, which cannot be exploited if the window closes.
We have been following developments and conducting research on biobanks, genomics and health data in Finland over the past decade. During that time, several new initiatives in biomedicine and health data have been launched and implemented. The Biobank Act (2012), which regulates all biobank activities in Finland, was passed a decade ago, resulting in 11 biobanks being established. Officials have also initiated a process to establish a national genome centre, with the aim of eventually storing every Finn’s genome data in one place. In addition, a new law regarding the secondary use of social and health data was prepared and passed. The purpose of the law was to ensure flexible and secure use of data by establishing a centralised electronic license service and a licensing authority for the secondary use of health and social data. Two new services were also founded during the latter part of the decade to make the Finnish research environment more lucrative and easier to operate within. The services were Fingenious, a service to all Finnish biobanks, and Findata, a national data permit authority through which researchers and companies can access Finnish health and social care data.
While participating in related events and stakeholder seminars, we observed and recorded that researchers, biobank managers, industry and funding organisations, and other stakeholders referred to the ‘lead position’ or ‘head start’ that Finland currently enjoys but that this position is now threatened. The stakeholders often stated that ‘the window of opportunity is closing’. We became intrigued with this notion. What is this window? Why does it need to close, and when? And for whom? The metaphor was also interesting because it was used by various stakeholders ranging from genetic researchers to innovation policy officials to media and pharma representatives.
For this article, we re-read our fieldnotes, which are based on our participation in dozens of expert events and seminars where Finnish biomedicine, biobanks and health data have been presented, discussed and promoted both for Finnish and international audiences (Snell, 2019; Snell and Tarkkala, 2019; Tarkkala, 2019; Snell et al., 2021; Tarkkala et al., 2019). These events ranged from research-oriented seminars on the current scientific state of the art to ones aimed at potential business partners or a wider audience of stakeholders interested in current developments. The events were arranged by, for example, universities and research institutions, biobanks, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, national authorities overseeing biobanking and clinical research, the pharma industry and research funding organisations. The events brought together experts from different fields in the public and private sector, representing mainly academia, industry and public sector governance, but interestingly, not political decision makers.
In addition to the fieldnotes, we searched for publicly available data in electronic format because often experts only made a fleeting reference to closing windows in the observed discussions or presentations given at different events, and to find and place such references in their exact context retrospectively would have required more exact recordings. As fieldnotes are not direct replications of what has been said in an event, we did not want to use them as quotations. Therefore, we searched for the terms ‘window of opportunity’, ‘closing window’ and ‘time window’ in both Finnish and English on the internet in relation to such terms as genomics, biobanks and health data and Finland. The resulting data include quotations from official reports and strategies, media articles, presentation slides and web pages of stakeholders, all dealing with biobanks, genomics and health data. All the quotations in this article are from publicly available documents, and if the original statement was in Finnish, we translated it into English ourselves. The fieldnotes that triggered our initial interest in the topic have informed the analysis throughout, with a certain amount of overlap occurring with the digital material. Our data sources, presented in the analytical sections, are mainly from 2012 to 2019, which also are the years of active strategy and regulatory development work in this domain in Finland. While our focus is on this time period, the internet searches provided some hits from earlier years (2005–2011). This prompted us to read the major Finnish documents related to biomedicine from this earlier time period and to examine whether and how urgency was present already then. Thus, the complete dataset is from the years 2005–2019.
Our methodological approach involves treating metaphors as framing devices that shape the discussions and understanding of an issue at stake (Nerlich, 2012; Koteyko et al., 2010; Nerlich and Koteyko, 2009; Schön, 1993). Metaphors as framing devices make some aspects of an issue more visible, while relegating other elements to the background (Koteyko et al., 2010; Schön and Rein, 1994). According to Nerlich and Koteyko (2009), metaphors are some of the most potent framing devices that can engender specific social and economic expectations. Framing an issue in a certain way can make information relevant and actionable to different audiences, as it creates boundaries around an issue, promotes a particular way of defining a problem and creates specific causal interpretations, for example, (Koteyko et al., 2010). We analysed how the metaphors of a window of opportunity and a closing window of opportunity framed expert discussions on Finnish biomedicine and health data. What issues were salient, and what diagnosed problem or solution to the problem did the metaphors promote?
In practice, we first organised the quotations taken from our fieldnotes and key comments found on the internet contextually (where the metaphor was used and by whom) and temporally to map variations. However, this analysis did not produce analytical differences, as all stakeholders were using the metaphor in a similar way. Then, we analysed the quotations thematically using both data-driven and literature-informed approaches. Since we have done more than a decade of research on various aspects of biomedicine and health data, we tried to use our existing understanding of the phenomena but also distance ourselves from our previous work—can we find something new or anomalous? (see Vila-Henninger et al., 2022). As a result, we identified a particular type of framing related to the metaphor of a window of opportunity that advocates taking urgent action in support of Finnish biomedical R&D and the various uses of health data. We also identified two main elements of this framing: international competition and national unity.
The first element, international competition, links the window of opportunity to existing Finnish resources and infrastructures (such as population registers and biobanks) that give the country a competitive edge in international competition, but they must be deployed quickly. The second element, national unity, connects the window of opportunity to national, common, centralised infrastructures and one-stop shops, such as the aforementioned Findata and Fingenious, and shared modes of operation and communication that must be built and maintained. In the following analytical sections, we show how the metaphor is first being used in the context of international competition and secondly to emphasise national unity. Third, we discuss the preceding Finnish history of having windows closing for biomedical R&D. In this way, we come to show different dimensions related to the framing of certain goals in terms of temporal urgency.
In strategies and policy speech, Finland is often described as having distinctive potential and resources when it comes to health data, registers, legislation and a willing and genetically unique population ready to participate in such research endeavours (Tarkkala and Tupasela, 2018; Snell and Tarkkala, 2019). The overarching policy framework guiding the development of the field in Finland is the Health Sector Growth Strategy coordinated by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment (MEE, 2014). It is highly enthusiastic about the prospects of genomic data and personalised medicine and strongly emphasises Finland’s potential to become a forerunner and internationally attractive partner for global business, cutting-edge research and health care utilising genomic knowledge. The closing window of opportunity metaphor, however, guides policy thinking in stressing that these strengths should be utilised now and without hesitation. As we analysed the empirical data, it became clear that this warning of a closing window of opportunity is not only emphasised by stakeholders, such as researchers and companies, it is also clearly present in national strategies and articulated by officials in ministries. One example relates to the idea of founding a national genome centre in the country as soon as possible. The following quote from the National Genome Strategy, prepared under the supervision of Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, demonstrates this point quite well:
A national service point at the genome centre would enhance genomics research and innovation, benefiting directly both Finns and Finland’s health services. However, the window of opportunity for exploiting Finland’s strengths will be open for a few years at best. (MSH, 2015, 3)
The negative or pessimistic visions of a lost opportunity were entangled with positive strengths and expectations (Tutton, 2011). The closing window has connections to the ‘lead position’ or ‘head start’ Finland is said to have in using health technologies, biomedical data and data infrastructures, as also indicated in the previous quote regarding ‘Finland’s strengths’. This premise of having both strengths and a head start underpins the urgent need to act and simultaneously makes Finland’s position fragile. The head start and related competitive advantage are currently in jeopardy because the window is closing. A descriptive empirical example comes from a magazine article that reports the launching of a national roadmap for a ‘Health Sector Growth Strategy’ (MEE 2016):
The programme draws guidelines for measures for the coming years that help to create new innovations for the health sector. For the coming few years, Finland’s window of opportunity is open for developing new kinds of cooperation and business. After that, the chance might be over. (Hoiva, 2016)
An essential part of this competition to be a world leader in genomics and biomedicine is that others would then view Finland as an attractive target for investments and a cooperation partner for international business. Finland needs to be more attractive than other countries, and its existing strengths will only make it more attractive on the global stage for a short period of time (e.g., Tarkkala, 2019). The potential for biomedicine is framed against a competition of nations (Felt et al., 2007), where Finland currently has ‘a head start’ and could benefit from it, but only if required measures are taken immediately. Materials we analysed sometimes mention competitors explicitly, with references to, for example, Estonia and other Nordic countries or specific national projects, such as the UK Biobank. Usually, the nature of international competition is unspecified—it is just competition. However, Finland is portrayed in speeches and articles as an entity, an actor and a nation that could be a beneficiary of this competition (see also Pelkonen, 2008).
Curiously, it was difficult to identify from our materials the point at which the window will have closed because it seems to be either further away or closer depending on the current mission and the desired objective. One example of a potential closure and a more concrete area of competition relates to the retrospective biological samples and the related health data already collected. Experts identified such data as potentially becoming less attractive once international competitors, such as Estonia, Germany and the United Kingdom, ready their own collections for the markets (Tarkkala, 2019). That is to say, they recognised Finland as having something usable already, whereas certain other countries were still in the process of collecting samples and data. However, investments have been lacking. A consultant summarised this perspective in a 2014 report concerning business opportunities for Finnish biobanks:
The window of opportunity might not be open necessarily for long concerning retrospective collections. Recently, several large population-based biobanks have been founded (Estonia, UK, Germany), and tens of millions of euros have been invested in each. Before they have gathered a full data depository that can be utilised, a follow-up for few years at least is still required. (M.I.T. Consulting, 2014, p. 3)
Finland—like many other countries—has tried to brand itself in the biomedical field according to the current and changing needs of biomedical R&D (Tupasela, 2021). Whereas previously Finland could offer a homogeneous population for the study of monogenetic diseases, the current interest in multi-factorial diseases has led to a situation where the suitability of the population for such studies needed to be shown (Tarkkala, 2019). Simultaneously, certain types of research become foregrounded as offering a potential for customers of the Finnish biomedical R&D environment (Tarkkala and Tupasela, 2018), as in the previous example, where retrospective samples with already collected data are highlighted. Thus, the activity of building an enabling and attractive environment for biomedical R&D produces its own window of opportunity as well by portraying Finland as a key location for certain kinds of biomedical endeavours and collaborations. In addition to retrospective samples, for example, these might include building specifically on the idea of Finnish homogeneity and certain loss-of-function variants that could be of interest for pharmaceutical R&D (Tarkkala, 2019). An expert involved in promoting data use described in one interview how there has been much preparation, but now it is time to act promptly.
‘The strength of Finns is more about careful background work and not about promptness’, says the service director Pekka Kahri from Tekes. ‘To utilise the business potential of biobanks, we need now both thoroughness and promptness. The window of opportunity in international competition will close in a couple of years.’ (Tekes, 2014)
Over the years, we saw several presentations by bioscientists that underlined the need to act now in order for Finland to maintain its position as a forerunner and stay ahead of international competition. They often addressed decision makers in these presentations and expressed concern about the inability to make much-needed decisions despite the already existing roadmaps and strategies. This inability to make decisions is the worst-case scenario because ‘the train leaves now!’, as stated in one public presentation (Groop, 2014). In fact, time had already been wasted one prominent scholar declared in a 2017 presentation, while also acknowledging that ministries and regulators have a visionary and forward-looking attitude in terms of developing personalised medicine in Finland (Palotie, 2017). Scholars and experts often adopt a tactic of simultaneously flattering and applying pressure at the same time. However, again the window of opportunity was about to close in the opinion of that scholar, and specifically, the threat has to do with losing out on possible collaborations with pharmaceutical companies that would then be able to establish collaborative networks in other countries.
In their presentations and blog texts, the stakeholders talk about the national ‘shared ambition’ required to secure such a competitive advantage (Snell, 2019). Presenters and writers mentioned a ‘shared ambition’ in Finland on many public occasions, as all actors from ministry officials to healthcare providers and genetic researchers are involved in shaping the biomedical future of Finland based on a shared understanding of what ought to take place (Liede, 2020). As a result, they all deliver the same, shared message—speak with one voice. However, many concrete measures must be taken to keep Finland’s window open and for the country to remain competitive: the proposed strategies need to be implemented; legislative reforms have to take place; IT and research infrastructures need to be created; and data lakes and data ecosystems must be developed further. Likewise adequate funding must be secured and tight and coordinated cooperation maintained between the various stakeholders to sustain even further the ability to speak with one voice (Snell, 2020).
One CEO from a pharma company crystallised the idea of Finnish success—that is, not only biomedicine in Finland but for Finland as a country—in a citation published as part of a blog text highlighting the significance of the National Genome Strategy and cooperation:
Biobank and genetic data are Finnish assets on an international scale, and the combination of biobank data with patient information systems is unique in the whole world. Cooperation and the completion of our national genome strategy will give Finland the opportunity to become a significant operator in this field. Our window of opportunity to achieve the position of a true trailblazer will be the next five years. (Oriola, 2016)
The speech about a window of opportunity that is closing—or only open for a limited time—is indicative of an all-or-nothing approach. It is telling that use of the metaphor does not come with an explanation of why the window will be closing or the specific acts or circumstances leading to its closure, apart from not taking immediate action. There is only a limited time to act—certain steps must be taken ‘now’, ‘soon’ and ‘in the near future’ (e.g., Palotie, 2015, 2017). In a nutshell, fewer descriptions are given of why the window will be closing and more regarding what ought to be done. An example of this approach is the following quote from a magazine article in which a biobank manager says that the opportunity will be lost without restructuring the Finnish biobanking scene—something that later took place in the form of a Finnish biobank co-op, founded in 2017:
International interest in Finland will nonetheless be temporary if big pharma has to operate with many different biobanks. The window of opportunity will close in a couple of years if we cannot organise ourselves outwards as a single biobank, in one way or another. (Mediuutiset, 2015)
The former example is very much connected to the idea of what Finland can offer to biomedical R&D and to ideas about what could serve as an asset in such research markets, where the goal is to attract investments and collaborations. However, for example in 2015 the window was closing specifically because Finland was not offering centralised data management for potential collaborators, investors and customers, which quickly led to the establishment of the Fingenious and Findata services as one-stop shops. In this context, experts specifically identified the health data registries as the country’s key strength (see also Tupasela et al., 2020). This makes collaboration between different partners and register keepers even more important because the datasets are marketed as a single entity, and therefore, it is Finland as a whole, the whole history of data collection, that is being sold and marketed (see also Tarkkala, 2019).
The metaphor of a closing window of opportunity advocates quick but also unified action. To avoid losing the ‘lead position’, all stakeholders from researchers to hospital districts and legislators should be working together and towards the same goal. Finland needs to be a single entity with easy and structured access to data and unified working practices to attract international investments and interest. While the metaphor shifts the discussion towards unity and acting quickly, it leaves little room for critical and opposing discussions.
Responding to constant changes
Our preliminary interest in the metaphor was born within the context of biobanks, personalised medicine and their potential from 2013 onwards. The year 2013 marks a divide, as it is the year that the Biobank Act (2012) came into effect and biobank operations officially started in Finland. The act defines what a biobank is as well as its operations. Since the establishment of biobanks, as well as other infrastructures like the new permit authority for secondary uses of health and social data (Findata), the window of opportunity has been closing. The suggested time frame has varied from soon to two years, to a couple of years, to the next five years, and so forth. If we take these suggestions literally, then most windows had closed already before we even entered the 2020 s. Furthermore, our data included instances where the metaphor had been used already earlier. When we examined earlier strategies from the early 2000s, we found a similar urgency, but it was not always articulated through the same metaphor of a closing window of opportunity. For instance, a 2005 report from the Ministry of Education outlines a window of opportunity that exists for Finnish ‘bioresearch’:
The viewpoint or fact that Finnish bioresearch has some sort of time window or potential for leadership has been raised in several discussions. Finland already has national registers and data, while in many countries they only just started to build registers. (Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 42)
The report identified maintaining Finnish leadership in bioresearch as a challenge but also an opportunity that ‘bioscientists and public health researchers can’t afford not to use’ (Eskola, 2005, p. 4). It identified the available data as representative and standardised, and ‘according to some, Finland has a 10–20 year lead compared to much European and American research’ (Ministry of Education, 2005, p. 36).
The previous quote exemplifies the way in which a sense of urgency always accompanies these endeavours. The urgency to benefit from health-related data was already present at the beginning of the millennium and continued in the next decades. One of the more recent big efforts has been to make social and health data available for secondary uses to exploit its ‘full-scale’ potential (see Tupasela et al., 2020). However, even though new legislation was quickly implemented at the end of the 2010s to allow for these potential uses, experts still voiced a familiar challenge and concern, namely just what possibilities exist for Finland and its R&D operations within ‘this time window’ in the context of international competition (Hämäläinen, 2018).
The metaphor of the closing window has helped us identify similar rhetorical and policy push strategies continuously employed in the past 20 years. Even though it was not necessarily always specifically a window that was closing at the beginning of the millennium, the need to take urgent action was already being emphasised. The same strengths were being identified, and the time to exploit them and benefit from them was urgently at hand. Thus, a restricted time for acting seems to be a constant state. Nerlich and Halliday (2007, p. 48) have warned that within the context of negative expectations, if warnings are issued too early, then they can neutralise the sense of urgency, but in Finland this seems to not make any difference, as the challenge is continuously being framed as a new one. In the area of economic activity and fostering innovation, the restricted time frame is characteristic of the rhetoric in such a manner that it passes unnoticed and becomes unquestionable—a ‘corollary to potential is urgency’, as Doezema and Hurlbut (2017, p. 54) put it. The negative threat framed with the metaphor of a closing window is about losing to the economic competition. If unified action is not taken, then other countries will be more attractive partners for biomedical research. The metaphor highlights a sense of urgency and unity to remain competitive but silences opposing voices, critical discussions and lengthy debates as part of the route to a desired future. Ethical questions, such as eugenics or consent processes, privacy concerns or benefit sharing are not part of this framing. Instead, what is threatened is progress on scientific, economic and societal fronts. The negative threats or expectations that need to be tackled now are the ones that would follow if Finland is not successful in this field—thus, infrastructures, funding and regulations that allow for and enable further research are needed. ‘Time is money’ so long as the window keeps closing—or at least potential money, potential spending or potential earnings.
The window of opportunity has been a convenient metaphor because over the years it was presented with a strong sense of urgency and with an identified need for change in the Finnish R&D environment, either legislative, regulatory or in terms of funding opportunities. Simultaneously, we have noticed that the window does not seem to close for real, though it is always in the process of closing, and we started to wonder why. From our previous investigations of expectations surrounding Finnish biomedicine, we identified this urgency as another angle to the topic—the looming negative consequences and strong temporal emphasis that nevertheless do not seem to add up to anything concrete, except the creation of a sense of immediate urgency.
Many scholars, such as Mio (1997), have pointed out that metaphors are persuasive. They are able to appeal to a larger story—in this case, Finnish competitiveness and unity. According to Schön (1993, p. 138), the seeming obviousness of the desired goals is a key characteristic of generative metaphors, and their obviousness should remain unquestioned in the search for solutions. In our case, immediate inaction can harm potential success—the unquestioned goal. This setting sustains a sense of urgency. ‘Time is money’, as Lakoff and Johnson (1980, pp. 7–9) have pointed out, is a classic example of such metaphors at work. Schön (1993, p. 138) suggests that by identifying the assumptions behind the metaphor, the issue at stake can be discussed and the given nature of the problem questioned (Schön, 1993, p. 143). Therefore, it is important to understand how metaphors frame discussions. It is in this kind of setting that we used the metaphor as a lens to investigate and discuss metaphors of persuasion within the context of biomedical R&D.
In the sociology of expectations literature, a key point is that expectations coordinate actions and make things happen. The metaphor of a closing window, however, is not a shared vision in the same way as personalised medicine or a successful bioeconomy. The threat of losing to the competition is a negative or pessimistic vision, but it goes hand in hand with a solution. The threat can be avoided through fast and unified action. As Tutton (2011) has pointed out, pessimistic and optimistic expectations or standpoints are both integral to the development of biomedicine.
The sense of urgency and understanding that action needs to be taken quickly and that legislation needs to be enacted fast might also, rather worrisomely, lead to what Brown and Beynon-Jones (2012) have described as ‘reflex regulation’. That is to say, regulatory changes based on haste and ‘perceived policy need to react quickly’ in such an environment (Brown and Beynon-Jones, 2012, p. 224). Reflex regulation compromises the constitutive debate and interrogation of hypes, hopes and risks that are related to new and emerging technologies (Brown and Beynon-Jones, 2012, p. 225). The sense of urgency might serve in creating pressure, and to an extent it might even be a condition of possibility for rapid developments and even innovations. However, a sense of urgency should not compromise the thorough consideration of proposed laws, debate, evaluation and transparency related to the potentially controversial aspects of new technologies. This is precisely what we identify as central to the generative metaphor of a closing window—the heightened sense of urgency does not leave room for critical discussion. In Finland, the decades-long use of the closing window metaphor has helped to frame discussions in a manner that closes off space for critical debate and public controversies and portrays Finland as a unified nation and actor pushing towards the same goals. Even though the window just keeps closing, the sense of urgency only leaves room for fast, reflexive reactions instead of truly reflective ones (see also Brown and Beynon-Jones, 2012).
In this paper, we have contributed to the discussions on how metaphors are used to drive certain ends and to gain funds and support (see e.g., Nelkin, 2001, p. 559; Schön, 1993; Stone, 2011; Mio, 1997). We have shown how stakeholders and science advocates draw on a sense of urgency through reference to a ‘closing window of opportunity’, which places them as participants in driving certain policy ends in the name of scientific progress and innovations, essentially illustrating simultaneously the co-production of science and society (see Jasanoff, 2004). In the field of biobanking and health data in Finland, the sense of urgency has been a constant companion to promoting related operations and opportunities. This has, during the 2010s, resulted in many overlapping programmes, projects and endeavours. In fact, it has given rise to the question of whether this multitude of different ways to pursue success in this area results in progress or whether it hampers success when the environment is in constant flux (Tarkkala, 2019). In the end, the window of opportunity is flexible; it keeps closing but remains usable in driving certain ends at different points of time. Related to this notion, we have expressed our concern over the potential hasty regulations that these efforts may lead to and the way this is prone to silence wider societal discussions on these topics.
The data used to support findings of this study can be found openly on the internet apart from the fieldnotes that cannot be shared.
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We thank Aaro Tupasela for the comments on earlier versions of this paper.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Tarkkala, H., Snell, K. ‘The window of opportunity is closing’—advocating urgency and unity. Humanit Soc Sci Commun 9, 324 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01345-8