Author: Anders Hagfeldt

Why we must strengthen our research on democracy and peace

Democracy in the world is under threat. In recent years, we have seen increasing numbers of countries restricting the freedom of speech, limiting academic freedom, and curtailing the rights of citizens to move freely and to choose their own lives.

Repressive, authoritarian regimes have a tendency towards false advertising. The rhetoric promises security and stability; in practice, they deliver surveillance and persecution. An authoritarian system, moreover, can offer leaders the scope to realise their dreams of grandeur with no regard to the consequences for the general population. We see the results in Ukraine at the time of writing.

Our Uppsala University must stand as a polar opposite to all those who seek to limit and confine. Here, knowledge will always be paramount. The many contributions our scholars and scientists make every day to the spread of knowledge and public debate fill me with gratitude and pride. On the subject of Ukraine, a list of experts has been created to facilitate contact between journalists and researchers at the University, who offer impressive collective expertise. In this connection, I would like to emphasise that sanctions must of course target those responsible – not individuals who happen to have the same nationality as the guilty parties. We must support and defend our friends – students, researchers, colleagues. They need us and we need them.

Research on democracy rests on a stable foundation at our University, but we can do more. In the coming years, we will put more than SEK 100 million into the research programme Democracy and Higher Education to make it even better. I am also looking forward to the opening of the Alva Myrdal Centre, whose mission is to promote disarmament – a more urgent mission than ever. Democracy issues are fundamental for our society and more of us need to be involved, across disciplinary boundaries. The truth is that a strong society that can stand up against oppression has to function on all levels. Education and knowledge are a type of vaccination, but no vaccine is perfect. In order to function, society needs so much more: viable technologies, infrastructure, health services and all the other things we take for granted in our part of the world.

The spreading of knowledge, debate and discussion also takes the form of lectures and public seminars. A number of our researchers have organised a panel discussion on the war in Ukraine, to take place in a few days’ time, on 15 March. This event is being arranged in collaboration with Uppsala Forum for Democracy and will draw on a range of expertise to increase knowledge about the invasion and its implications.

In September a conference will be held in Uppsala, when PEN International and participating writers and other members from around the world will meet here in our city. PEN International is the oldest association dedicated to freedom of expression in the world. The University is proud to be a partner in this conference and to provide the venue. One of those attending will be Nobel Peace Laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of Novaja Gazeta, one of Russia’s few remaining major independent newspapers, since 1995. The conference and cooperation around it are an important event manifesting a principle: we can, and will, show solidarity. As a university in a privileged country, it is our duty to offer an arena for those who are otherwise silenced.

It is in discussion that we formulate our insights; by listening to one another we broaden our perspectives. Sometimes we agree, sometimes not. Whether we agree or not, we respect one another. Democracy needs us all.

100 years in the shadow of the Institute for Racial Biology

One hundred years ago, the State Institute for Racial Biology opened here in Uppsala. It was a small institution, with only a handful of employees, but it was intended to mark a new era, of this there could be no doubt. The decision to establish the Institute was well prepared. An exhibition of Swedish ‘folk types’ in 1919 had made a great impression and paved the way. The formal decision was based on a parliamentary motion whose signatories included the former prime minister, right-wing politician Arvid Lindman, and – perhaps better known today – Hjalmar Branting, Sweden’s first Social Democratic prime minister. The debates following the motion in the Swedish Parliament had revealed a general consensus. The Institute was considered highly important and most speakers agreed that it was urgently needed. The reservations voiced were mainly of an organisational nature: should the Institute be independent or part of the University? The decision was in favour of independence and it was only in 1959 that the Institute was taken over by the University and transformed into a department of medical genetics.

The arguments adduced were simple and easily understandable. The ambition was to make Sweden a leader in this new modern field, which was described as crucial for public health. It would make it possible to trace hereditary diseases and prevent them from spreading, and would study and counteract the harmful effects of mixing what were perceived as superior and inferior ‘races’. Arguments were drawn from the animal and plant kingdoms. Artur Engberg, who ten years later would become Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs, with ultimate responsibility for the Swedish school system, pointed out, for example, that: “It is remarkable that while we are extremely concerned about the pedigrees of our dogs and horses, we show no interest at all in considering how to preserve the integrity of our own Swedish people.”

Heredity was in vogue as the principal explanatory model for human characteristics. Talk about the different value of different races provoked few protests in this context, such ideas being long established, particularly because of colonialism and the slave trade. Moreover, the rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in 1900 enhanced the scientific legitimacy of these ideas. As a result, the possibility of scientific study of the significance of genetics opened up in earnest, though this did not mean that established values disappeared; in some respects, they were instead reinforced.

The Institute began its operations at the beginning of 1922. It had a mandate to map the genetic profile of the population, with respect both to the majority, who were considered to belong to the ‘Nordic race’, and minority groups such as the Sami, Finns or descendants of the Walloons. All this happened in the name of science and public health. However, the director of the Institute, Dr Herman Lundborg, was a typical representative of racial biology based on the idea that genetics played a decisive role for both physical and mental characteristics, which were classified, moreover, as more or less valuable. This applied both within the same ‘race’, where differences of sex and social standing were regarded as primarily genetic, and to differences between ‘races’, which were classified as genetically superior or inferior. Lundborg devoted a great deal of his time to collecting material about the Sami ethnic group, mainly because he perceived any mixing of the ‘Nordic race’ with the Sami as a threat. This was not in line with the government’s expectations and the research on the Sami was therefore criticised. Having said that, one can wonder why it was allowed to continue at all.

From a modern perspective, the differences between contemporary medical ethical approaches and those of the early twentieth century are striking. It is obvious that the interests of the individual were regarded then as less important than they are now. The state of knowledge was scanty, moreover, and in racial biology the answer often preceded the question. The idea that different individuals had ‘better’ or ‘worse’ genetic preconditions, and that the same applied to ‘races’, was taken for granted by people like Lundborg rather than being treated as a theory to be investigated. Another factor was that the people studied were not considered worth listening to. Medical doctors had great authority in society in general and in relation to patients and research subjects, particularly if the latter belonged to groups that were already vulnerable.

This is not how we conduct science. The way that Lundborg proceeded does not constitute good research now, nor did it then. But history exhibits many examples of blinkers and tunnel vision. There is an inherent danger that abuses will occur when ideology and preconceived ideas govern the interpretation of facts.

Dividing people up, classifying them and grading them, as the Institute did, was therefore not as strange a hundred years ago as it is today. I think of my own wife, who grew up with apartheid in South Africa – a system that differentiated between people on the basis of their origin and the colour of their skin. It took many years of protests to bring that system down. I think of how it felt for my wife, when she got to be part of the welcoming committee that received Nelson Mandela when he was released from Victor Verster Prison near her hometown of Wellington on 11 February 1990. That was little more than thirty years ago.

Our verdict on racial biology is severe and we must remember that Lundborg did not act alone. He did not acquire his platform in a vacuum. Racial biology exemplifies a widespread view of human beings, in which less consideration was given to the interests of the individual than to those of the state or the nation. This applied in particular to individuals who belonged to groups with lower status than the male white middle class. The same pattern recurs in connection with compulsory sterilisation and the introduction of lobotomy, for example, where socially vulnerable women were the primary victims in both cases. The medical ethics that prevailed before the Second World War differed very considerably from those that emerged afterwards. The same is true of the generally accepted attitudes towards ethnic minorities, gender and, particularly, those with the most severe mental disabilities.

As this day approached, I have given a good deal of thought to the risk of science being kidnapped when it serves political ends – and to the way in which science can sometimes kidnap itself. I would also like to raise the question of which areas today will come in for criticism later. What will be the verdict of posterity on our slowness to tackle climate issues? What view will be taken of the free rein given to the development of artificial intelligence technology, while legislation, ethics and morality lag behind? How far have we actually come in our attitude towards other cultures? Do we even understand how exclusive our University can be perceived to be?

Here we have a duty to fulfil. We are a university. That means providing scope for dialogue and discussion. We do not need to agree with one another and think alike; here, truth is not dictated by the majority. Instead, our role is to ask, what can we learn? Which voices were not heard in the past? Which are not heard now? Research is a matter of testing ideas, proving, disproving, adjusting, testing again.

Today we remember the establishment of an institute. On the centenary of that establishment, we are turning a spotlight on part of Sweden’s dark history. Forgetfulness, silence and denial are the worst enemies of knowledge. Let us always also remember the errors of thought committed in the name of science, so that we can do better.

Hate and threats against researchers must be taken seriously

The independent, unconditional pursuit of knowledge – academic freedom – is the very essence of the university and the key to society’s preparedness for unforeseen events, as demonstrated by the coronavirus pandemic. If the development of society is to rest on a scientific foundation, it is vital that new knowledge reaches decision-makers and the public. Researchers are therefore encouraged by society, universities and funding bodies to communicate their research and discuss it with the world around them.

And indeed, every day we see this happening in public. Researchers take part in discussions, debates and interviews. They contribute their expertise, explain complicated situations and describe the state of knowledge. This is an important part of the researcher’s role. Regrettably, however, a downside is also evident.

With the rapid social media channels of the present time, information – and disinformation – spreads very quickly. Striking, sensational information unfortunately often spreads more easily and faster than more objective articles or rebuttals. Simple, confident messages often gain broader currency than more nuanced and complex communications. A media landscape like this favours colourful personalities rather than objective experts. But society needs more people with sound knowledge and a talent for communication in public, not fewer. If incorrect information circulates about health risks, for example, or about science in general, we risk a situation where both decision-makers and the public act on an uncertain or, in the worst case, a completely mistaken basis.

It is therefore perhaps more important than ever that researchers today communicate and contribute to an objective debate based on the current state of knowledge. We know that some research triggers hatred and threats more than other types of research. There are examples of this in research on racism, gender, the climate and even diet, for instance. It goes without saying that threats are always completely unacceptable and a silenced scientific community is a threat to democracy. Society needs researchers who want and dare to communicate, discuss and collaborate on their research. Moreover, if scientists and scholars refrain from research on topics that are more exposed than others, society has embarked on a dangerous course.

At higher education institutions, we need to be aware and support researchers subjected to hate and threats, at departments but also at overall level. We need to be active, raise the issue in various contexts and learn to deal with the situation wisely. From a security perspective, threats should always be reported to the police. We have no desire to advise researchers against communicating in social media too in a digital world; on the contrary, we would like to encourage them to do so. What happens if researchers disappear from young people’s arenas?

In academia, criticism is normal: research progresses by the examination and re-examination of knowledge and constructive peer criticism. What implications does this have for our ability to support one another when a storm blows up on the internet? Could academic competition lead to a temptation to jump on the bandwagon of a groundless defamation campaign?

The outside world has great confidence in academia, but what happens if a necessary scientific disagreement is perceived as unreliability or dismissed as researchers squabbling in public? We need to become better at explaining that researchers do not possess the ‘truth’. That results from different studies can lead to different conclusions, that the same study can be interpreted in more than one way and that this is as it should be. That knowledge is constantly gradually evolving. How can the academic community best protect its own necessary culture of openness and criticism, while communicating openly with society at large? Who are the most important parties in society to cooperate with and be in dialogue with in this connection?

If we ignore this question, hatred and threats can escalate and in the worst case affect the future of research. If researchers refrain from starting, pursuing or completing their research, or avoid collaborating with someone who has become a hate object, the attackers will have achieved their purpose – to silence certain voices.