On Saturday we celebrated our new doctors at KI. A total of 165 promovendi, an all-time high, received their doctoral insignia – hats and diplomas – in the City Hall of Stockholm. The record number reflects the need to catch up after the pandemic, but it is also a testament to the emphasis that Karolinska Institutet places on doctoral education. For me as university president the conferment ceremony – when we literally inject new competence into the Swedish and global society – is one of the high points of the year. It reminds us of the important role that universities play in the present and have played in the past, as pillars of society and prerequisites for societal development.
Once again, I extend my best wishes and congratulations to the new doctors and to their mentors, colleagues, families, and friends. And I would like to include my sincere thanks to the master of ceremonies and her staff, to the student marshals, and to all others who make our academic ceremonies to memorable events for us all.
Below are excerpts from my introductory speech to the new doctors.
In the last QS ranking of the world´s universities Karolinska Institutet was placed as the number one university in the European Union within the field of life science and medicine. Even if we should be skeptical to university rankings and what they actually measure we may safely conclude that excellence and quality are much in evidence at Karolinska institutet. You, our promovendi, and the generations of PhDs and scientists before you, have contributed to our present standing as one of the leading medical universities in the world.
If there was ever any doubt as to what universities are good for, look to what has happened during the Covid-19 pandemic. When facing this unknown and deadly disease, university-based scientists on all continents immediately started to sample and analyze patient information to guide health care staff in best practice treatment. This happened in record time. In parallel, and in an unprecedented collaborative effort between academia and industry, vaccines and new medicines were developed and made available at warp speed. Together with your colleagues and mentors you, dear promovendi, contributed significantly to the advances that were made during the first stages of the pandemic. These were life-saving advances, as they improved care and made prevention possible. Notably, in a recent international ranking KI was placed among the world´s top ten when it comes to the elucidation of how the coronavirus interacts with our immune system.
Decades of research
When we applaud the efforts of the current generation of scientists, we should also applaud the contributions of those on whose shoulders we stand. The progress that we have witnessed over the past couple of years depends on decades of research in universities, here at home and abroad. Much of the earlier research on which current progress is based was probably deemed irrelevant at the time. But when a crisis hit, we saw that knowledge from many different fields of research was brought together and combined. Dots – previously disparate – were connected. And progress ensued.
In my mind the history of the current pandemic is very much a replay of the history of science – it is just as if we have pressed the fast playback button. The pandemic has made us look back to the discovery of the genetic code, to the rise of molecular biology, to the development of the polymerase chain reaction, to the understanding of viruses and their interaction with our immune system. These – and many others – are fields that have been recognized with Nobel prizes in physiology or medicine and that constitute the platform for the successes we saw over the past couple of years. In fact, 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.
So it is not entirely true that vaccines and new treatments were developed at warp speed, in record time. In reality, their development rests on decades of research. Vaccines – in particular – attest to the success of long-term investments in research – and in basic research, not least.
A silver lining
The pandemic tragically has taken a huge toll on society in terms of human suffering and economic costs. But there is a silver lining: it has also shown us what universities – with our pursuit of knowledge – are good for. The pandemic has underscored the value of free, curiosity driven research as a bedrock for society. Political decision makers and research funders should take note: Curiosity driven research 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.
The vision of Karolinska institutet says that “we are advancing knowledge about life and strive towards better health for all”. The phrase “better health for all” tells us that we have to work for a better health, across geographical and generational borders and across socioeconomic strata. Nobody – and future generations not least – should be left behind. The short but magical word “all” gives us a great responsibility but is also uniquely inspirational. Dear promovendi, dear future alumni, wherever you go, whatever career you carve out in the near or distant future, please do remember the responsibility that is embedded in this very small word: “all”. By taking on this responsibility you will show what we – as scientists and university – are good for.
I will end my talk with a comment on the societal debate that we have been through, leading up to the election that will take place tomorrow. The debate has zoomed in on issues such as street violence, inflation, and price of electricity. Important issues, certainly. But issues related to pandemic preparedness and the value of research have been conspicuously absent from the debate. The same thing can be said of the recommendations of the corona commission.
In the societal debate there must be room, not only for issues that are urgent today but also for issues that might become very urgent tomorrow. What we do know is that the future will bring a new health crisis – be it a new pandemic, antimicrobial resistance, climate change, or armed conflicts. We don´t know when a new crisis will hit, but in order to be prepared we know that research is key.
Memory about crises can be short. Too short. One who lived long enough to remember the second world war – a major crisis indeed – was Queen Elizabeth II, who sadly passed away earlier this week. Two years ago, on the 75th anniversary of allied Victory in Europe, she gave a speech, repeating the words of her father King George VI, spoken 75 years earlier. “The wartime generation knew that the best way to honor those who did not come back, was to ensure that it did not happen again”. There is a striking parallel to the pandemic. The best way to pay respect to those that were tragically affected by the pandemic is to ensure that we are better prepared when the next crisis hits. For this, long term, curiosity-driven research is essential.
I trust that the doctoral education that you have been through and that will be crowned by today´s ceremony has given you the platform and courage you need to break new ground, to engage, to strengthen the fabric of the society. With a diploma from Karolinska Institutet you are poised to make the world a better place.
A heartfelt congratulation to you all on this important event.