The war calls for our competence and puts us to the test

From the vantage point of a medical university, each and every war is a health crisis, calling for our competence and putting us to the test. The vision embedded in our Strategy 2030 – that we should strive for a better health for all – takes on a special meaning in a situation where many are directly impacted by warfare and millions are forced to flee. 

The Russian attack on Ukraine has prompted a wide range of sanctions, including “science sanctions” targeting universities in Russia and Belarus. Such sanctions affect academic collaborations and academic freedom at large and call for reflections on how we should handle our international contacts in both short- and long-term perspectives. Simply put: How should we, as academics and universities, navigate responsibly in a world marked by war, conflicts, and rise of authoritarian regimes? And how can we best support those victimized by war and conflict through our core activities: research, education, public outreach, and international collaborations?


These were two of several questions that were up for discussion in a webinar arranged yesterday afternoon here at Karolinska Institutet.

On the one hand, universities are public institutions that must accept being governed by the state, even more so in Sweden where rectors double as heads of authority (myndighetschefer). Indeed, confronted with the current act of aggression there are good reasons to suspend the formal ties with state-run universities in Russia and Belarus. On the other hand, we as academics and universities are also tasked with safeguarding institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Being used as an instrument of  power infringes on autonomy as well as academic freedom. It is a fine balance to be struck. And when we make decisions today, we should not act instinctively but look beyond the current crisis, for the long haul. We must cling to the belief that Europe will eventually return to a state of normalcy and the international academic network will then be part of the foundation on which to rebuild.

Increasingly important

The role of academics and universities as defenders and custodians of academic values is increasingly important in today´s global context. Questions surrounding core values and academic freedom are brought to the fore when countries move in an authoritarian direction and even attack or invade other countries. Russia´s invasion of Ukraine is now in the focus of the world´s attention, but recent history is replete with similar acts of aggression on other continents.

More than ever do we need to reflect on how to uphold and develop international cooperation in a responsible and value-based manner.

Requires competence

Academic navigation in a turbulent world requires competence – on the level of the university leadership, on the level of the department heads, and on the level of the individual researcher. This is a competence we have to build ourselves, within our academic communities: nobody should or could do it for us. Much competence is already in place, but the complexity of the issues at hand calls for sharing of experiences and knowledge between disciplines, between higher education institutions, and between countries. Yesterday´s seminar was a step in this direction.

I would like to express my sincere thanks to all participants:

Astrid Söderbergh Widding, President Stockholm University and chair Swedish Association of Higher Education Institutions
Johan von Schreeb, Professor and Director of Centre for Health Crises, Karolinska Institutet
Anna Mia Ekström, Professor Karolinska Institutet
Rouzbeh Parsi, Head of Middle East and North Africa Programme at Swedish Institute of International Affairs
András Simon, Professor and Department Head, Karolinska Institutet
Peter Wallensteen, Senior Professor of Peace and Conflict Research, Uppsala University

A warm thank you also to Carl Johan Sundberg, professor and Department Head at KI, who moderated the discussion, to Robert Harris, Academic Vice President for Doctoral Education at KI, who gave an introductory address, and to the technical staff who tackled the challenge of arranging a hybrid meeting on such a short notice.

Earlier blog post on Ukraine:

Many questions and activities on the war in Ukraine
Time to reflect on our international collaborations
KI supports the people of Ukraine

Relevant articles in Science Business and University World News.


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