Author: Anders Hagfeldt

Welcome back

The semester is under way, the students are here and we have an exciting spring ahead of us. We certainly have plenty to look forward to. In just over a week, on 25 January, Morten Meldal – 2022 Nobel laureate in chemistry – will give a lecture at Uppsala Biomedical Centre. On the same day, the nineteenth Hugo Valentin Lecture takes place. This time, the speaker is Renée Poznanski, Professor Emerita of History at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, who will address the topic: “Survival During the Occupation: Did the French People Save the Jews?”

Two days later, on 27 January, we will celebrate advances in knowledge and scholarly methods. I am referring, of course, to the Winter Conferment Ceremony, which we will be celebrating once again after a break of several years (because of the pandemic). Ahead of the ceremony, several honorary doctors will lecture, also on 25 January, by the way. You see how it is, and this is just looking at two days in January. My advice is: keep an eye on the events listings. At this great University of ours, there’s always something going on. Be there, take part, be constructive, be enthusiastic, get involved. Welcome to a new year at Uppsala University.

Happy Holidays!

The autumn is over, winter is here, Lucia has come and gone, Christmas and New Year will soon be upon us. Time flies when you’re having fun, as they say, and looking back on the past year it has unquestionably been an exciting year full of developments and events at our broad University.

It started in a rather unfamiliar way in the aftermath of the pandemic. We were suddenly able to do all those things that had been impossible for so long. Our talented and ambitious students could return to their studies on campus and to the rich student life traditionally on offer at Uppsala University. At last we could celebrate 30 April and never have so many thronged to Carolina Hill. It was wonderful to be able to meet up, though people’s expectations of the new normal inevitably varied. Many have continued to work from home some days, others are back on site full-time. We have also started to travel again, but have learned that electronic tools mean we often don’t have to. The threat of climate change looms and as a University we have an important role to play, through education and research. At the same time, political developments give cause for concern. Russia’s war against Ukraine is constantly on our minds and calls for our attention and commitment. Change can come abruptly on the playing field of life.

Here on our home turf we have done many interesting and important things. For example, we have inaugurated the Alva Myrdal Centre, New Ångström, the Precision Medicine Centre Uppsala, HERO, and Democracy and Higher Education. We have celebrated the heritage of Celsius and Skytte and resumed the observance of Rudbeck Day, conferred doctoral degrees and inaugurated professors, created several new competence centres, continued to build on our strengths and discussed the future – from visions to practice. The analysis of Campus Gotland’s future role in the region and within our University has been completed. Now it’s time for us to consider and put visions and plans into practice.

In recent weeks, we have had distinguished visitors in the shape of Nobel laureates. We had the privilege of three days of lectures of the highest calibre from international leaders in their fields. Visitors flocked in particular to the lecture by our alumnus Svante Pääbo on Saint Lucia’s Day.

Summing up, we can safely say we’ve been busy and a glance at the calendar reveals that next year looks set to follow a similar pattern. We will have to wait and see how things turn out, but with the present already rushing into the future, it will be up to us to make the best of whatever comes.

We are full of confidence, knowing what a fantastic University we work at. It is fascinating and inspiring to realise what we can achieve by everyone’s combined efforts – students and staff together.

We meet again in 2023, with renewed energy. Until then, look after yourselves!

Anders Hagberg, Vice-Chancellor
Coco Norén, Deputy Vice-Chancellor
Caroline Sjöberg, University Director

Internationalisation with a focus on Africa

Our University undertakes major international initiatives. We collaborate with universities across the globe, and our Mission, Goals and Strategies highlights internationalisation and the need to be open to students and researchers from all over the world. Amidst tough competition, Uppsala University wants to recruit the very best and enrich the University with other nationalities’ experiences and perspectives. This vision was formalised last week through a decision on the Forum for Africa Studies. The decision will entail a new venture and a broadened scope that will transform its activities into a resource for the entire University. Funding will be provided for five years with the intention to:

  • coordinate and highlight research on and involving Africa at Uppsala University
  • establish and coordinate a graduate school for Africa Studies
  • promote Africa Studies programmes and courses at Bachelor’s and Master’s level
  • establish and coordinate strategic partnerships, projects and programmes with African universities

The venture is also strongly in line with developments in The Guild, which our University co-founded. This network, which brings together some of Europe’s leading universities, is tasked with highlighting the role of academics in the EU. This involves discussions of conditions, infrastructures, funding and distribution.

The University of Cape Town (UCT) recently hosted a high-level delegation of 16 vice-chancellors from Africa’s leading research universities and 15 European university leaders. The first time a meeting of this nature takes place in Africa. Photo: Lerato Maduna

The Guild has now launched a collaboration with ARUA – a sister network promoting Africa. At a meeting in Cape Town, we agreed to focus on the creation of focus areas, or Clusters of Excellence. The idea is for universities on both of our continents to participate on equal terms in joint research and educational ventures. The areas in which Uppsala will be investing have not yet been fully established.

The management notes that networks of this type have the greatest impact at the University when they fulfil a concrete need at departmental level. The more closely involved in activities they are, the greater the benefit. Those that are not are easily perceived as ‘top-down’ and largely administrative constructions. We have work to do in terms of promoting this initiative, but there is also a need to have a discussion about the networks into which the University is to invest its resources. These efforts have also begun.  

Worrying situation in Iran

The protests in Iran are continuing and we are concerned about the situation of our colleagues and students at universities in the country. The origins of the escalating protests in Iran lie in the detention of a 22-year-old woman, Mahsa Jîna Amini, by the morality police in Tehran. According to the police, she was not wearing her headscarf correctly. The violent treatment in connection with her detention led to the young woman’s death and in solidarity many people are now manifesting their dissatisfaction with the violence, the regime and the coercion.

Uppsala University supports the peaceful protests. We will always stand firm in our values, affirming the equal value of all people, freedom of expression and democracy.

The protests have been met with violence and the use of tear gas and live ammunition. The University of Tehran is reportedly closed and the situation appears to be deteriorating. Our thoughts are with those at risk. Together with all universities in Sweden we have declared through the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions that we expect freedom of choice and freedom of expression for our Iranian friends and a peaceful democratic development. Anything else is unacceptable.

Welcome PEN International

Authors such as George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison – I could name many more – have given us terrifying portrayals of what can happen to people when their freedom of expression, be it written or spoken, is taken away. The reason that their stories affect people so deeply is likely that the fiction is unnervingly close to the truth. We are only ever a handful of wrong decisions away from seeing the authors’ dystopia become reality. The books they write simultaneously hold up a mirror and sound a warning. They implore us to safeguard our freedom and never take it for granted.

Article 19 of the UN’S Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This is how we want things to be and how things should be everywhere, but unfortunately reality is not always the way it should be. People are persecuted, threatened, imprisoned and tortured because of the opinions and statements they utter. Regimes try to silence those who write critically. The Belarusian Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich was recently accused of extremism, while Salman Rushdie was attacked on a stage during a lecture on 12 August. There are many frightening examples.

Uppsala University plays an important role as a counterweight to censorship, ignorance and looking inwards. A congress arranged by PEN is getting under way today. The worldwide association of writers (PEN originally stood for Poets, Essayists, Novelists) aims to promote friendship and intellectual exchange between writers; to emphasise the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture; to fight for freedom of expression; and to defend writers who are oppressed, imprisoned and sometimes killed for their views. PEN is also the oldest human rights organisation and the oldest international literary organisation in the world. The congress brings together visitors from across the globe, and I am proud and delighted that we can offer our wonderful premises for the congress as a practical contribution to the defence of democracy and freedom of expression.

I would like to extend a warm welcome PEN and all of its members to Uppsala and our University.

The programme for the public parts of the congress can be found here.

Summer is here!

Two bowls of strawberries and a vase with margaritas.

It has been an exciting and different spring. Many events that were cancelled during the pandemic could take place in the past few months. In many ways, we have experienced the University afresh as we have made the transition back from online to in-person. It has been fun and intense.

We in the management team have sensed a pent-up need to meet so we have tried to accept as many invitations as possible and endeavoured to be available and present. This has also made the spring fun and intense – mostly fun. 

Everywhere we go, we have met ambitious, committed, visionary staff and students who have big, exciting plans for the University we share. Balancing all these creative ideas is perhaps the most important and most difficult of our major tasks. Which way should we choose for the future? We have received a great deal of help along the way from many knowledgeable colleagues. That gives us a sense of security and a good feeling.

It is a privilege to be Vice-Chancellor and Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University. Every day brings surprises and insights. In a University as large as ours, there is so much to discover and get involved in. We keep a close eye on developments and every day gives us cause for pride. Our ambition is, and has been, to meet and talk as widely as possible. We hope we will have time to meet many more of you who are reading this letter during the autumn.

Until then we wish you a wonderful summer of rest and harmony.

Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt and Deputy Vice-Chancellor Coco Norén

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.