Time to reflect on our international collaborations

This is an English version of a blog post previously published in Swedish (March 3, 2022)

A few days ago, the Swedish government – via Minister for Education Anna Ekström – called for a discontinuation of contacts and collaborations between Swedish higher education institutions and state-run institutions in Russia and Belarus. No new contacts or undertakings are to be initiated. This does not “automatically” imply that relationships and collaborations between individual scientists should be brought to a halt. The government assumes that our universities and university colleges will ensure that any personal contacts and collaborations are aligned with national and European policies.

It is regrettable but understandable that we have arrived at a situation where sanctions against academic collaborations are considered necessary. As a public authority, Karolinska Institutet will naturally be heeding the call.

In practice, on the part of KI this means prematurely terminating a university-wide MOU agreement (Memorandum of Understanding) with a state-run Russian university. The agreement was due to expire in June, but we have now terminated it with immediate effect in response to the government’s statement. Our heads of department have also been instructed to check if there are any similar institutional agreements at departmental level.


It goes without saying that we will comply with the new policies, but we must also, as a university, ponder what science sanctions imply on a principal level and in the longer term. What impact will these sanctions have, and how should we navigate responsibly in a world marked by war, conflicts, and political tensions? It is inherent to our mandate and our remit to refrain from making rash decisions in a situation where the consequences of our actions are insufficiently explored or understood. Simply put, we must strike the best possible balance between our role as a public authority and our role as a free, autonomous university.

Finding this balance is not an easy task in normal circumstances. In a troubled and tense time of war, it is even harder. This is why it is vital that we, in the midst of all this, take time to reflect a little upon what we do before we do it.

The important perspective

In the Minister for Education’s press conference last Wednesday Hans Adolfsson, vice chairperson of Association of Swedish Higher Education (SUHF) and Sven Stafström, director general of the Swedish Research Council, both voiced their support of the government’s and Minister’s line, but above all Hans Adolfsson addressed the important point of differentiating between official collaborations with state-run institutions and the collaborations that exist between individual scientists and research groups. This is a cardinal principle for KI and for me personally.

To cut all scientific and educational collaborationz and use academia as a means to political ends (no matter how worthy) is risky and inauspicious in many ways. It concerns, amongst other things, the importance of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. We need to distinguish between individual collaborations and formal agreements between state institutions, an issue that the Minister also raised during the press conference.

We must also remember that many of our Russian colleagues are critical of the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine and are likely to need support if they have to flee the country, a risk that Scholars at Risk has also called attention to.

If you want to think more about the risks, I refer you to last week’s blog post, which I wrote shortly before the invasion and the Minister’s talk of sanctions.

From case to case

To sum up, it is important that we refrain from curtailing all collaborations with Russia as many of these are research projects based on relationships between individual scientists. We must decide matters on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, we should not engage in projects that can be used or exploited by the Russian state in its ongoing aggression and we should discontinue contacts if national security aspects are involved.

Data security, misuse of sensitive research data, fake news and misinformation: these are all issues that require our vigilance in times of conflict and war.

Spoke to a colleague in Kiev

Last week I spoke on the phone to my colleague Iurii Kuchyn, president of Bogomolet Medical University in Kiev with which KI has an MOU. He told me that the situation in the country and in the capital is tense but there is a mood of grim resolve amongst the population to fight and thwart the Russian invasion as much as they can. He is deeply grateful for the support and sympathy reaching Ukraine, not least from academic colleagues around the world. We will be staying in touch.

The notion of support is important to bear in mind. It is easy to call for sanctions or other kinds of punitive action against Russia and Belarus in this situation, and many such measures are both self-evident and urgent, as long as they hit the intended targets. But it is no less important to discuss what we can do to support Ukraine in this instance. Finding the best balance between sanctions against the attacker on the one hand and support for the attacked on the other will create the best conditions for putting an end to this insane and unjustified war.

Never hesitate

We must never hesitate to act in an emergency situation, but what we do must be sustainable. Everyone, including our authorities and politicians, needs to be aware of the consequences of using academia as an instrument of power.

Creating space for this discussion, we will be arranging a one-hour webinar at 5 pm on 14 March: Academic collaborations in a time of war, conflicts, and political tensions. Here we will have an opportunity to reflect upon our international partnerships in times of conflict and war. Contact Karin Ekström if you want to take part.

KI has posted information on the internal web about the government’s instructions and what it means in practice for KI.


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