Karolinska Institutet’s fall 2021 conferment ceremony: Science in several dimensions

Last week I had the honour to give a speech to welcome KI’s new doctors, jubilee doctors and honorary doctors. I talked about the time dimension and the global dimension of science. Below is the written version of my speech.

Promovendi, jubilee doctors, honorary doctors, esteemed guests, colleagues, families and friends.

It is a great honour to welcome you all to Karolinska Institutet’s fall 2021 conferment ceremony.

This evening we celebrate our new doctors, who will shortly receive their doctor’s hats and diplomas.

And we celebrate you, our new jubilee doctors and honorary doctors.

I am also delighted to welcome our promovendi’s families, friends, supervisors and colleagues.

Tonight science is represented here in the time dimension: on the one hand we have the promovendi who are about to embark on their postdoctoral careers and on the other hand we have the jubilee doctors who have had a long and successful career after they themselves were promoted. Dear jubilee doctors: even after 50 years I know that several of you are still active. You represent a fair share of our history and the time dimension, you represent so much experience, you continue to inspire.

And much in evidence today is also the global dimension of science. Today we reinforce this dimension by promoting our new honorary doctors, representing three different countries. What we have seen during this pandemic is the importance of these two dimensions of science – the global dimension, a seamless collaboration across borders – and the time dimension – the steady progress of science over time and generations.

Taken over the scene

If we – or anyone – were ever in doubt about the value of scientific research – consider what has happened during the current pandemic that is still not over. Researchers have literally taken over the scene and communicated science to the society at large, to an extent that I have never experienced before. Our researchers at KI have been particularly active in this regard and I thank them for this. And when it comes to development of vaccines this has happened in record time and is a triumph of academia and industry in unprecedented collaboration. We have seen the outcome of a truly international effort – we have seen the importance of the global dimension and the willingness to share. But this has also been an effort of generations of scientists – not just those who are with us today.  

Generations of scientists  – the time dimension of science: this is what I would like to discuss with you this evening.  

When we read time and time again that vaccines, new diagnostics and treatments were developed in record time and at warp speed we must not forget that these achievements build on decades of research and not least – decades of basic research. Those that brought science the last mile towards new vaccines did a marvelous job but they would not have reached the finishing line were it not for the efforts of preceding generations. When I read articles about Covid-19 in newspapers and even in specialized journals I rarely encounter references to the historical key discoveries on which the current successes depend. The time dimension – the history of science – is often forgotten and hidden by a veil of contemporaneity, eclipsed by a disproportionate focus on the here and now.  

Curiosity driven basic research

Why should we bother? We all should bother because if the time dimension of science is lost, then the support of basic science will be lost as well. We need to remind ourselves continually of the importance of curiosity driven basic research – that this is the platform from which rapid advances can be made when need be – such as under a health crisis.  

To preserve the support of and understanding of basic science we need to take time to hark back to the curiosity driven research that brought us the genetic code, our knowledge about viruses and our insight in cell biology and immunology that have figured so prominently in current debates about public health measures and vaccination strategies. We need to acknowledge basic research on lipids – the unsung component of mRNA vaccines. We only need a glimpse of the list of Nobel Prizes to understand why we are better equipped to handle COVID-19 than the Spanish flu. COVID-19 is a tragedy but at the same time an unparalleled showcase of the value of scientific research.  

A fundamental task of a university is to compress time – to honor and learn from the history of science but also to look forward, beyond the short time perspectives that predominate in current debates. Looking forward we should now embark on a discussion on how we can be better prepared next time around. Simply put: when the next pandemic hits, the pathogen must not be allowed to get the same head start that the new coronavirus got about a year ago.

It is a question of identifying and characterizing zoonotic viruses with pandemic potential, it is about building capacity for medicine and vaccine production on all continents and in the global south, it is about delineating a governance system for just distribution of medicines, vaccines and healthcare resources on the global level, and it is about improved access to large-scale patient information combined with improved surveillance and data sharing between nations. But last but not least: it is also about strengthening the platform on which it all rests: curiosity driven research. It might be costly, but we have just learned the hard way that the costs of science are dwarfed by the costs of a global health crisis.  

Solid platform

More than ever do we need a solid platform of basic research so that we will be better prepared for the next crisis – be it a new pandemic or another crisis impacting the society at large.

So where is the Karolinska Institutet in all this? To have a time dimension in our research and education is equivalent to having a vision. Our vision says that we should strive for a better health for all. This is the bold vision that I hope that you – our promovendi – will be contributing to. The short word “all” is the one word distillation of our vision as a university: we should work for a better health, across geographical, gender and generational boundaries and across socioeconomic strata. Specifically, when it comes to issue of building preparedness for new pandemics and health crisis the short word “all” tells us that we should build universal preparedness for health, a term that we recently coined in an article in the journal Nature Medicine. Universal preparedness says that we shall research and educate for a better societal resilience to health crisis not only in our own region and country but globally. This is the ambitious goal of our new Health Emergency and Pandemic Science center and this is the ambitious goal of our new projects in Africa, aiming to help build capacity for medicine and vaccine production. Today Africa imports 99% of the vaccines that this continent administers. This is not sustainable and is an example of the technology divide that so fundamentally contributes to the health disparities that we see in the world today.

Back to the global, international dimension of science. My experience from this pandemic is that scientists have been eager to share data and knowledge with fellow researchers in other countries, thus paving the way for the rapid progress we have seen in testing, diagnostics and treatment. This is how science should work. And this is how science should work even in a world with increased political turbulence. Even if there is a loss of trust in diplomatic channels we should retain and foster trust in the scientific ones.

Nurture your international networks

International academic cooperation is required to handle the challenges ahead, be they in the realm of climate change, antimicrobial resistance or new pandemics.  Dear promovendi: I urge you to keep and nurture your international networks – they are important safety nets in an increasingly turbulent world. Keep up the global dimension of your research. But do let yourselves be inspired also by the time dimension – the proud history of science and of your alma mater, Karolinska Institutet. And be inspired by the fact – so vividly displayed under the current pandemic – that results that might seem to be of little relevance today might help the world tackle a major health crisis tomorrow. As a scientist you are part of something bigger. Stay faithful to your mission so that we together can make this region, this country and this world a better, healthier and more equitable place for all.

Thank you and I wish you all a very rewarding evening.

From the ceremony in Stockholm City Hall with some of our esteemed jublilee doctors 2021


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