Thinking about new ways of thinking

Thank you. This is something I have said many times recently, but it is worth repeating. Thank you to everyone who in different ways has contributed to the major spring adaptation to the prevailing coronavirus crisis – that, despite everything, has worked so well at KTH.

The digital reset that we implemented and the extremely relevant Covid-19 research that KTH has contributed to, show what we can achieve in a pressure situation.

But I hope we don’t stop here and nostalgically yearn to go back to how things used to be, but rather that we look forward and nurture our ability to find new solutions quickly. If we can take this with us as a lesson learned for the future, I think we will have gained a great deal even if it came at a high price. What will KTH and all its operations look like in another ten years?

That thought can also feel somewhat offensive when you consider how this past spring that has taken such a heavy toll on all our energies in different ways. Even so, I still hope we can bear it in mind, boosted by the intensive hunt for and finding of solutions during these months.

Looking ahead –to the year 2030 – I see that what we have just experienced when we were forced to think differently and act in a new way during the pandemic as seemingly being a natural part of daily life – has strengthened KTH’s expertise and that we have further climbed in our international ranking. A KTH that is international and equal and that stands for sustainable development and is a leader in digitalisation.

One important question to think about is what globalisation and sustainable development will look like in the wake of the pandemic. Creating international learning environments independently of where on earth we live is both a challenging and an exciting task. Imagine if these digital tools genuinely offer a social feeling on a par with being in a classroom, a lab group or a management meeting.

The virtual meetings we have had in recent months have been both exhausting and exhilarating for us. That these digital tools could both capture and communicate non-verbal communication is something to be desired. We have not reached that point as yet.

Another aspect of these virtual meetings is that they do not capture the social context and the physical experiences. Alongside the actual learning, students who leave their home university also experience a new culture and a new geography for example, and get to see how similar and dissimilar life is in different parts of the world. This adds yet another dimension to learning. This in particular is an exciting challenge to resolve in digitalisation’s footsteps.

In efforts to save resources by travelling less and with the development of digital tools, KTH is going to offer mixed forms of learning. By offering both digital learning when this delivers the best results and campus-based learning in laboratories and seminars where this is the best option, we are creating an optimal platform for good learning while at the same time saving resources that helps towards sustainable development.

Important to preserve the breadth of research

In the last few weeks, KTH has been given new education contracts, both for the foundation year and also in the form of a promise of resources for lifelong learning. Being granted additional resources is a sign of trust, trust that must be managed well.

At the same time, I have been wondering what impact the ongoing pandemic and lockdown of society nationally and internationally will have on research. Announcements of relevance to different aspects of Covid-19 can be expected on the horizon, but my main worry concerns the breadth of Swedish research.

In the case of KTH, this concerns all other research within our areas. For example, some foundations base the extent of their research grant funding on share dividends, and reduced dividends would lead to reduced grants.

In the media, we can read that when industry starts up again, third stream/co-production research can be given a lower priority initially. The Knut och Alice Wallenberg Foundation principal council, consisting of the presidents of twelve research intensive universities, met the Minister for Higher Education and Research on 27 May, to discuss research and the risk that research will lose out when numerous education investments are made.

Work is continuing on the research and innovation bill, and we can certainly expect to see words on Covid-19 there.

One can only hope that research will not be crowded out. In the wake of this initial deprioritisation of research by industry, many people are wondering where this will leave externally employed doctoral students. Will we see a reduction in numbers and if this is the case, is this a new potential investment area for the government? Research and innovation are just as important as education investments in getting society back on its feet again after the crisis.

For us at KTH, where research makes up around 70 percent of what we do, it is important that the entire breadth of KTH research can continue to thrive.

 

The art of decision-making

Black and white thinking is rarely a practicable approach for research – even if it probably can be enticing. Making decisions about things that are happening in the here and now are far easier than casting your eyes forward to the autumn and attempting to predict how things will have developed by then. Synchrony – or being able to envisage several parallel tracks in your head can be crucial in uncertain times.

That as a researcher to dare to do something on the one hand while on the other hand patience and sometimes even courage are called for.  Making decisions about an unclear future, where not all facts are on the table, is a challenge. I have sometimes wondered about what the various options are.

  • One way is known as wrong decision fast where it can feel more important to make a decision no matter how wise the decision can seem on further contemplation. 
  • Another is to lie doggo and make a decision by not making a decision and waiting for things to pass – or as you may perhaps see it – seeing things out.
  • A third is to the one that concerns synchrony, where timing is an important component in decision-making.

At KTH we plan to open as usual this autumn, that is to say study period 1 autumn term 2020. However, making decisions in this situation is not easy and there is a big need for synchrony.

Added to which, KTH is an international university that has been impacted by the global situation in the wake of the pandemic. Will exchange studies be possible even if we do open as normal? It is extremely likely that the after effects of the strategies pursued by different countries during the pandemic will affect KTH. We will also be in a situation where the infection will remain for a long time, which means the new normal will not be the old normal.

An interesting opinion piece published in a leading Swedish daily the other day by the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics, presented eight values and principles for decision-making within an ethical framework (https://www.dn.se/debatt/sverige-saknar-etiskt-ramverk-for-beslut-vid-pandemier/ ). Several of these principles can also provide decision-making guidance in general, not least in the situation we are in now.

I hope the recommendations that are due to be presented by the Swedish Public Health Agency in late May or early June, are clear and relevant for universities and colleges.

 

The plan is to open our campuses this autumn

What will it be like in the autumn? For KTH, the plan is to open as normal, and conduct our courses on campus.  Having said that, we are naturally going to heed the lessons we have learned over these intensive spring months, when everything has been disrupted for most of us.

Learning, knowledge and the exchange of ideas and experiences – all in close proximity – are at the very heart of KTH courses. This is true whether in a laboratory or classroom, where teachers and students engage in a dialogue, bounce ideas back and forward and ask questions, in the here and now. Personal interaction is important when we talk about KTH as a high quality university. It benefits and stimulates learning and the ability to think along new lines together.

For all the numerous advantages of digitalisation, learning is best done on campus, in physical proximity, with face-to-face exchanges.

Even though autumn is not so many months away, it is almost impossible to make any predictions. However, at KTH we have very definitely decided to plan and aim for campus education.  At the same time, we naturally have plans in place, if the virus situation,  government directions, public health agency general advice and recommendations say otherwise.

Our focus is on ensuring our students receive their education.  We have learned a great deal by being forced, like many others, to switch to become a digital university with distance learning and digital exams on a full time basis. This is something we are going to manage, strengthen and further develop.

KTH has, as I have previously written, two solid legs to stand on when it comes to education –one digital and one physical. These are what will carry KTH forward as one of the best universities in Europe.

No freedom without responsibility

The media have been full of reports and opinion pieces about the coronavirus crisis in the last few weeks. Many researchers are involved and working together to find answers and solutions. This demonstrates the research community’s ability both to play their part and to change track.

Academic freedom means researchers have the right to formulate their research question and to freely publish this.  However, this is also accompanied by the at least as important academic responsibility – a responsibility that entails many things. These include:

  • Caution when performing the research
  • Validate and ensure the results stand up
  • Openness to critically discuss the results

As a researcher you must have done all this before submitting material for publication. An inherent requirement of research on natural sciences and engineering is that the experimental part should be so clear that other people should be able to repeat the experiments and get the same results. In other words, this is a rigorous craft that ensures high quality research findings reach the research community and that are of benefit for social development.

In the rush to reach out and pursue a certain line, it is unfortunately the case that sometimes testing hypotheses and reviewing the results get skipped over. Are we in some kind of competition? Naturally, there is an enormous need for new knowledge in everything from models to predict the spread of infection to eventually developing a vaccine against covid-19. What is most challenging in what we are facing right now is the fact that there are so few answers to the many questions we all have. The urge and determination to find answers are perhaps greater than ensuring the quality of the research. This is serious.

In so doing, the credibility of the research and trust in universities and colleges can be at stake.

High quality research requires caution in all its parts and leads to research that will be of benefit to society. Research of high quality is part and parcel of the academic environment of a leading university. This makes for an attractive environment that attracts new talents.
Without responsibility there is no freedom either.