International academic collaboration in an era of geopolitical turbulence calls for competent and responsible navigation

Earlier this year we established KI Advisory Group for Global Engagement. As I wrote a couple of months ago, one important question for discussion is how  Karolinska Institutet should develop its relations with universities in authoritarian countries. Shall we keep up and seek new collaborations in such countries, and if so, how are these collaborations to be structured and handled in a responsible way?

If we were to collaborate only with “like minded countries” we would have to restrict our collaboration to the other Nordic countries, New Zealand and Canada. These are the select few that now make it to the top tier of the Economist´s democracy index. A mere 8.4 per cent of the world’s population now live in “full democracies” and the USA itself is classed as a “flawed democracy”.

Let me make this clear right away: scaling down international academic relations should not be done easily even in an increasingly turbulent world. The aim must be to maintain and even bolster collaborations to help build confidence in an era in which many diplomatic connections falter or break down. If we are to influence values and procedures in other countries then we must interact with these countries. But we must not be naïve – for many countries the short-term prospects for developing towards full-fledged democracies are pretty slim. Other countries might rapidly climb in the democracy rankings and for these the ongoing academic collaborations will prove invaluable. A strong academia nurtured by international exchanges is always beneficial when democracy returns.

Let us not forget

And let us not forget: for individual scientists working in countries in which academic freedom is wanting or under threat, any links to the international academic community serve as much-needed “oxygen”. This was the apt metaphor used by a member of our Advisory Group in our last meeting.

The long-term aim of the Advisory Group is to formulate a guide for our global approach, as an aid to navigate proactively and safely in a new geopolitical context. The topic in our last meeting was as follows: How can a university maintain and argue for academic freedom in collaboration with universities in contexts where academic freedom is deteriorating and university autonomy challenged?

A timely issue indeed.


Many universities – and KI is among them – are facing pressure to reduce or even terminate academic collaborations with researchers in authoritarian regimes. Obviously there are certain research areas and topics that should be handled with utmost care when it comes to international cooperation but to maintain and develop rather than abandon must be the overarching principle of our internationalization policy. This is also the principle we apply to our engagement in Hong Kong. Our Ming Wai Lau Centre for reparative medicine does not report any infringement on academic freedom or institutional autonomy. Yet our operations there require our full attention and competence – which is now extended by the participation of our international Advisory Group for Global Engagement.

If KI as an academic institution is subjected to political pressure we must be able to document that we are aware of potential risks and difficulties in international academic collaborations and that we are actively working to mitigate these risks. We do this in a qualified manner based on specific competence on the regions and countries involved and the generic competence of academic freedom and autonomy. It is in this context that the competence of the Advisory Group so effectively complements our own.


On a general note the term “proactive” is key. In a meeting with our departmental heads and administrative leaders today I referred to cases in which researchers had entered international collaborative projects in the belief that they were founded on the core values that we adhere to but later realized that the values were unduly twisted by the interference of illiberal authorities. This is a trap we as researchers should not fall into. Risks must be analyzed up front and agreements and memoranda of understanding must state the obvious: academic freedom is a conditio sine qua non for international collaboration. With its international stature KI can send strong messages to oppressive regimes as we now do through accepting a Scholar at Risk (SAR) researcher from Afghanistan and hand out an SAR award to Ahmadreza Djalali.  

I take this opportunity to warmly thank those who agreed to join our Advisory Group for Global Engagement:

Stephanie Balme – Sciences Po
Terence Karran – University of Lincoln
Rouzbeh Parsi – Swedish Institute for International Affairs
Andres Rivarola Puntigliano– Stockholm University 
Isabell Schierenbeck – University of Gothenburg
Sylvia Schwaag Serger – Lund University
Stefan Swartling Peterson – Karolinska Institutet 
Albin Gaunt – Karolinska Institutet
Bob Harris – Karolinska Institutet

Ps. Please take a look at a new video recently published by KI: “Face of discrimination“. Do you think that discriminated people look sad? Watch the film to understand why.


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