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Questioning is the best defence

Can this be right? Is this reasonable? Where did this come from?
These are a few of the questions that can be very important to ask when in our daily work as scientists,researchers and students, we are inundated with half-truths and outright fabrications in the form of pseudoscience and fake news.

Perceptive and purposeful questioning is the best defence against deceit. That goes for  academia – as institutions of knowledge – and, by extension, even democracy itself.

Understanding movements, political or social, in different countries is difficult if you are not an expert. In some parts of the world, democracy is young and fragile; while in others, democratic systems have been maintained for a long time.  Even so, current events have provoked discussion about the risks of taking democracy for granted. Some say that’s a dangerous thing to do; while at the same time saying so could be merely an attempt to exploit discord for certain political gains.

I personally have to acknowledge that I feel secure in the stability we have in our societal institutions today. Nevertheless, I am well aware that these have not been placed under greater pressure to date. Familiarity with Sweden’s  constitution, laws and pending legislation is a good basis for  understanding our national government’s basic values .

Knowledge and those who spread it are among the first targets of attack when democracies are dismantled. So it’s reassuring that each year about 400,000 students in Sweden learn about critical thinking and the art of perception and questioning things.

Evaluating sources of information has perhaps developed into a reflex action when when claims of truth are made. That our researchers engage in the debate is another important defence .

But if the debate becomes increasingly black and white and simplified, there is a risk of diminishing the strength of research – which specifically involves positing theories, situations and tests, against each other taking into account different variables.  “On the one hand this but on the other hand that” is neither easy to chew on nor quickly digested.

Continuing to question require courage, stubbornness and not losing one’s way in the academic hierarchy. Just because someone is a professor in a specific subject does not mean they know everything about everything.

Never before has it been as important to understand our fundamental rights and avoidingall too simple solutions to complex problems. This is something we have seen not least during the current pandemic.

It feels reassuring to be head of a university where essential engineering knowledge,  has problem-solving in its DNA. This in itself, always also begins with questioning to identify the problem and in so doing, start on the path to a solution.

The importance of role models

Welcome to a new year and a new semester. With vaccination and spring on the horizon, we are working hard to ensure our students receive their education and in so doing, gain a solid foundation for their future professional lives.

Over the holidays, I had the time to think about the future and perhaps even more about role models. And how important these are.

No matter how recruitment is done or what position this entails, a professor can be a role model for many people around them. But a colleague, manager, teacher or someone else on your course can also be a role model. Just as we are all part of each other’s working environment, we can also be each other’s role models.  Rules, values and reality go hand in hand together with intellectual honesty – these are important ingredients for a role model I think.

But has room for manoeuvre as a role model shrunk, perhaps? The parameters have become narrower and people are increasingly living in glass houses and throwing small stones in these uncertain times. For me, having a stable set of values to lean on is vital and to immediately acknowledge when you have made a mistake, messed up or been unsuccessful in something. That is both human and humble.  It is hard to be a role model if the rules an organisation puts in place do not apply to everyone. Practising what you preach has never been more apt.

After these philosophical musings, I started thinking about recruitment to universities and how crucial role models can be in inspiring students to continue their studies. When once upon a time I decided to continue my studies, for me it was that higher education offered plenty of opportunities. I didn’t have any role models in my family but I did find them in all the people I came in contact with in my professional role. Belief in the future also played a big part for me and the view that there were many ways I could make a contribution.

A Swedish Higher Education Authority report published last autumn, describes how socially distorted recruitment has been over time and that this trend is largely enduring. If your parents have a degree, it is far more likely that you will continue onto higher education. This pattern has remained over time, but encouragingly enough, the survey, that looks at people born from 1956-1993 shows a certain change in individuals born in the 1980s.

However, what does it actually matter who chooses to continue their education? Obviously, this is very significant for each specific individual’s opportunities and development, but what is equally important is that the university risks missing out on loads of talented individuals with other perspectives, that will be crucial for the future development of society. What is the deciding factor?

Well, that brings us back to where I started. Role models, quite simply. The people who have gone before you and shown that yes, it is possible. And that these role models show in practice that rules, values and intellectual honesty are part of why they have been successful.

How can we get more Nobel laureates?

Each October, for a moment, the world of science holds its breath. Who will it be and for what? The Nobel Prize has a special aura, not just for the prize recipients, but also for the patient researcher who refuses to give up. And naturally for their university.
KTH has one Nobel laureate to date; but how can we add to that number?

This week the annual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will be presented in a different format – just as KTH’s own ceremonies have had to be adapted in this tragical year. KTH gained its first Nobel Prize 50 years ago in the person of Physics Professor Hannes Alfvén.

When it was finally Alfvén’s turn in 1970, neither ranking lists, status nor visibility were on every university’s minds as they are today. And while the stardust from then goes a long way, adding a few more Nobel prizes wouldn’t hurt.

We have many excellent and successful researchers, but when I play with the thought of how we could gain more Nobel laureates among our researchers, I also realize that there are a few things that could foil their chances.

The continuous search for funds  – takes a toll. A greater share of basic grants could ease this situation somewhat. There must be a way to enable talented minds to focus  in peace and quiet.

And it is pure research that is often rewarded – rarely applied research. Gaining breathing space in terms of time and money within a very narrow area can be difficult today. But that’s what’s needed in order to tackle an issue in depth,  without worrying about the merit of the work, or where continued funding will come from.

Added to which, all successful research needs to be seen. It has to be published in leading international journals and made available to other researchers, so that it can be evaluated and discussed. That, in turn, provides the supporting evidence for awards and remuneration.

Other explanations are that research is one part of a researcher’s brief, along with education on a broad front, and cooperation. At many of the most prestigious international universities that KTH is compared with, first cycle education is not part of their brief, since other parts of the system take care of this. Nevertheless, a broad brief is an advantage for KTH, as it shows the trust that Sweden places in higher education and research to deliver societal benefits via all its university graduates.

That research should benefit society is a cornerstone of the Swedish research system and this is naturally laudable. But what happens with research of a more subtle nature, that increases our knowledge and our know-how? Perhaps rather than offering any societal benefits today, it can be a key part of a solution tomorrow.

We must allow room for entirely new ideas that no research financing body has even started to think about. It is in this context that we need to seriously think about how Swedish universities should be able to compete globally with many of the universities that offer fertile soil for their researchers to claim the finest international award of all, namely the Nobel Prize.

If we think this is a quality factor of importance, these are the kinds of questions politicians ought to start discussing. Or is being good enough, good enough for Swedish higher education?

On the sunny side – despite covid-19

I always feel a touch of scepticism when people say think positive and everything will be alright. But when you think about the situation today, I expect it’s more like an obligation. So I give it a try:

SciLifeLab is  celebrating 10 years. This unique and globally-recognised institution attracts researchers from  around the world. The Human Protein Atlas, celebrating 20 years,  has astonished the world and helped a great number of researchers make progress in the hunt for solutions within medicine and health.

When I think about it, there are plenty of pleasing successes you could add to the list:

KTH coordinating a major initiative, called Blue Food, in sustainable seafood is good news, as is the fact that we are involved in a fossil fuel free steel manufacturing process that is unique to Sweden. Or why not the news of the work on the development of the world’s first electric road? (In Swedish)

I am always just as proud and sometimes taken aback by what research in general and research at KTH in particular can achieve.

Also on the sunny side we can naturally include our hardworking teachers and you could say they accomplish amazing deeds in the face of changing circumstances, such as last spring, when the situation was constantly changing, from one day to the next. Not to mention all our other employees, including those that have been on campus every day to ensure everything keeps running, and those that are now working from home. And our students of course who are doing their best to build their knowledge and  and in so doing, be able to help build the future even though it is very definitely not business as usual right now.

There have been plenty of government press conferences in the last few days. Discussions about whether or not face masks should be mandatory and different recommendations that follow on from each other. Like a kind of mantra, they say doing the right thing should be easy enough. But I think it is difficult to understand this patchwork quilt of rules and regulations.

KTH operations are not affected by the governments’ proposal of limiting public meetings to eight people. But we are doing our best to follow these prescriptions, as we understand how they apply to higher education.

But the way I interpret this is that we should ensure that we manage our campus operations in a way that reduces the risk of infection as far as possible.

Our business has been conducted as safely as possible since the start of the autumn term 2020, and we always ensure this. Those who can work from home do so after consultation with their immediate superior and otherwise we will support those who are in place. Our mission, which is aimed at all our students, means ensuring the highest quality of education even in these times. This means that certain practical elements, like laboratory work must be done on campus.

We are currently living in a kind of twilight zone where, on the one hand, many people feel a grinding fatigue and are working with a low intensity crisis awareness. The adrenaline-fuelled power from spring has perhaps been replaced by something else.

On the other hand, our brief of providing research and education means we are an essential business – not only to ensure our students gain a competitive education that is up there with the best globally – but also because our research and its crucial results are vital. For our present and the future that is guaranteed to come – regardless of the coronavirus.

Modern infrastructure a necessity

Just over 15 years ago, several professor colleagues and I successfully applied for money for a mass spectrometer. It has proved to be of tremendous benefit – in this particular case, within polymer materials. This is what good research infrastructure is all about. To both stimulate and generate new and practical research results.

MALDI, Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization, has now been around for quite some time, but as with even older and in this case, local infrastructure, it can still be used in research and deliver valuable results. But for a university like KTH with experimental and high quality research and education, modern equipment and access to the very latest within infrastructure is also absolutely vital. Rapid developments within technology and knowledge make this urgent.

Having a modern research infrastructure makes KTH more attractive, not only as a place to study but also for teachers and researchers wanting to work here. What’s more, it increases the desire of national and international students to choose KTH as they know it is a place where experimental, cutting-edge research is pursued. Added to which, it is important to increase the price tag for science and technology. This is ultimately a quality issue if students at KTH are to be able to possess solid skills in experimentation when they leave us. It is this first and second cycle education payment (the science and technology price tag) that underwrites the infrastructure of education.

For the sake of Sweden’s competitiveness and innovativeness, a deliberate and perhaps in certain cases even a brave investment in infrastructure, is clearly a must.

This has long been a controversial issue, not least when it comes to financing everything from purchasing, maintenance and development – that has been batted backwards and forwards between different parties where universities have been expected to take greater financial responsibility. And while a national infrastructure can bring in rental income when used by other researchers around the country and the world – such as our PDC Center for High Performance Computing,  the basic grant has been hollowed out and opportunities for external financing reduced.

The fact that it will soon be possible to charge fees for the use of KTH research instruments offers increased scope to keep instruments updated and in good condition and at the same time, opens new avenues to cooperation within education and research.

I  look forward to what Special Commissioner Tobias Krantz intends to propose to the government at the end of May next year. He is going to take a closer look at the organisation, management and financing of our national infrastructure.

As usual, clarity is the key when it comes to the foundation for both stable and innovative operations. So I hope to see a model for our national infrastructure that revolves around know-how, needs and excellence. Which would benefit us all.