On May 4, the Young Academy of Sweden gathered policymakers, heads of funding bodies and world-leading researchers at The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to discuss the concept of academic freedom. Sweden ranks as one of the most democratic countries in the world. Despite that, our academic freedom isn't as strong as we could hope for.

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Lisa Hellman and Mia Liinason from the Young Academy of Sweden moderated the conference Academic Freedom in a New Era. Photo: Erik Thor/Young Academy of Sweden

Terence Karran, professor of Higher Education Policy at the University of Lincoln, has compared the academic freedom in Sweden with other EU-countries and we are far from the top. Academic freedom still exists, but legal protection for institutional freedom is fragile, and the Nordic higher education model is weakening, he claims. New laws and the implementation of university reforms, like new public management techniques, have resulted in altered governance structures to the detriment of individual academic freedom for the academic staff. Also, the rise of populist political parties seems likely to weaken the once strong Nordic educational model, the report says.

Academic freedom in a changing world

How is research affected by a world characterized by political conflicts, a decline in democracy and knowledge resistance?

Keynote speaker Åsa Wikforss, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Stockholm University, currently leads a large, cross-disciplinary research program where the nature and causes of knowledge resistance are studied systematically, both empirically and theoretically. Professor Wikforss started by giving an overview of the situation for democracy in the world, which is on the decline.

Political scientist Lars Pelke, Postdoc at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg in Germany, is currently involved in a joint research project with the V-Dem Institute on Academic Freedom Index – a project which provides stakeholders with an overview of the state of academic freedom in nearly 200 countries and territories and ultimately aims to promote academic freedom. According to the latest statistics, academic freedom is in retreat for over 50 percent of the world´s population – 4 billion people. Where democracy is in retreat, academic freedom also seems to be threatened. “To protect academic freedom, protect liberal democracy”, he concluded.

Someone who has personal experience of the consequences when you as a researcher challenge scientific dogmas is Christine Stabell Benn, Professor of Global Health at the University of Southern Denmark. Her research aims to document that vaccines and vitamins affect the immune system in a much more general way than previously thought - a somewhat controversial topic that, for her part, has led to a fight against multiple opponents. “How do we leverage good ideas when we have a system that is countering discovery?”, she asked.

A concept broadly approached and broadly understood

The conference offered many interesting discussions about different aspects of academic freedom - economic, institutional, political and personal. Some of the questions being addressed were: How do we establish trust in scientific practices? Do researchers have a certain responsibility to safeguard and impact discussions on freedom? Is there a friction between research activism and research integrity? And is there a tension betweenthe needs of society and academic freedom?

“The politicians’ understanding of the academic community's need for self-government to guarantee the quality of scientific activity is inadequate”, said Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg, Professor of Political Science at Uppsala University, and concluded that regulation is required to secure the guardrails of academic freedom.

Salla-Maaria Laaksonen, Adjunct Professor in Media & Communication Studies at the University of Helsinki, contemplated over the changes in the media landscape and how it affects the strategic communication in universities. “Why are universities not talking about research anymore?”, she reflected.

Funding freedom was another theme at the conference. What is needed to enable open-ended curiosity and long-term, high-risk projects? Who should pay the price for it? What is the role, and prerequisites, for funding agencies to promote academic freedom?

Arne Flåøyen, Director Nordforsk, reflected in his talk over the fact that few research funders write about academic freedom in their policy documents, and that this is something that surprises him. "Why is it like that - is it because we take it for granted?", he asked.

Christina Moberg, Professor in Organic Chemistry at KTH, reflected over the unexpected benefits of science, for which academic freedom is a necessity. "Political strategic investments rarely lead to the unknown oceans", she said.

Sharon Rider, professor in Logic and Metaphysics, Uppsala University, talked on topic of “Autonomy for whom? Self-governance of what? The changing institutional conditions for the exercise of academic freedom”.

Concluding remarks

Each session was moderated by alternating chairs of young academies. All four moderators gathered at the end to sum upp their respective reflections from the day. Mia Liinason, chair of the Young Academy of Sweden brought up the different tensions that makes academic freedom such a challenging topic, and how helpful the conference had been to navigate these aspects. Marie-José van Tol, chair of the Dutch Young Academy, remarked how variying contexts of academic freedom poses different threats, and proposed that we should reflect more on the role of universities and why this role has to be protected. Timo de Wolff, chair of the German Young Academy, stressed the importance of the time we are living in and how democracy and free academia needs to be defended. Jacek Kolanowski, chair of the Polish Young Academy, added that a freedom to choose career paths and research activities is also an important aspect to consider. Lisa Hellman, host of the conference, thanked all of the speakers, moderators and audience for contributing to the inspiring discussions. She concluded the conference by pointing out how remarkable it was to see such a hopeful and constructive atmosphere in a very serious topic.

Full programme:

The full program can be found here

Speakers at the conference:

  • Åsa Wikforss - Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Stockholm University and member of the Swedish Academy, Sweden
  • Arne Flåøyen - Director NordForsk, Norway
  • Lars Pelke - Postdoctoral researcher, Institute of Political Science, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany
  • Salla-Maaria Laaksonen - Adjunct professor in Media & Communication Studies, Centre for Consumer Society Research, University of Helsinki, Finland
  • Terence Karran, Professor of Higher Education Policy at the University of Lincoln, United Kingdom
  • Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg - Professor of Political Science, Uppsala University, Sweden
  • Christine Stabell Benn - Professor in Global Health, University of Southern Denmark, Denmark
  • Christina Moberg - Professor Emeritus of Organic Chemistry at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and former president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Sweden
  • Sharon Rider - Professor of Logic and Metaphysics, Uppsala University, Sweden

Moderators:

  • Lisa Hellman - Member Young Academy of Sweden, conference host
  • Mia Liinason - Chair Young Academy of Sweden
  • Marie-José van Tol - Chair De Jonge Akademie, Netherlands
  • Timo de Wolff - Chair Die Junge Akademie, Germany
  • Jacek Kolanowski - Chair Polish Young Academy, Poland

The conference was arranged with generous support from Wenner-Gren Foundations and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond, as well as from our main funders Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, Erling-Persson Foundation, Ragnar Söderberg's Foundation, and the Natur & Kultur foundation.

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