SCAS News - 7 July, 2022

Network, Trust and Transparency

Network, trust and transparency - these three words have stuck with me from the symposium
”Opening the Ivory Tower Wide”, held at SCAS and BMC/UU, on May 18th-19th 2022. The
symposium was an event of the research theme ”Measurable Human” within the Natural Sciences
Program at SCAS, and organized by Nina Schiller, Erik Ullerås, Kristofer Rubin and Ulf Landegren.

During two days the participants of the symposium discussed and exemplified how academic
progress reaches society and makes a wider difference, but also challenges to this process, and
consequences for academic freedom.

I picked up the terms network, trust and transparency in the first coffee break. The previous
session had focused on how to navigate through the innovation system as an academic. Obviously,
there is not a standard solution that suits everybody. Access to a big - or least the right - network
improves the chances of meeting key people that can function as mentors, investors, or general
facilitators. Once on the innovation path, all parties need to be able to trust one another. Given that
the different stakeholders might have different interests, transparency is key to avoid misunder-
standings and to understand each other’s expectations and needs.

Even if this particular chat at the coffee break was about innovation the same principle of network,
and transparency can be applied to many different approaches of outreach. Take communication
with the broader public, for example. A network, and/or collaboration, of scientists and science
communicators can facilitate dissemination of scientific results and scientific methods to a wider
audience. This might happen via public lectures, podcasts like SCAS Talks, clips on YouTube,
activities at science festivals or talking to patient organizations. In times of increasing disinformation
and even desinformation it is of particular importance that the audience can trust the scientist or the
expert that is featured on national news. The scientists have to be transparent - what are their areas
of expertise? Do they have in interest, or advantage in for example propagating for a particular health
care measurement?

Networks between scientists and politicians and policy makers are essential to bring about change,
and to promote evidence-based policies. Sometimes this is a process that takes many years, and some-
times decisions have to be made fast. One example are the measurements that were put in place at the
onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. Researchers in economics, policy makers and other stakeholders
had a fast and efficient exchange of ideas to weigh the consequences of different scenarios against each
other. During the symposium we learned that this process was facilitated through already existing think
tanks - networks - with professionals who could trust each other. At the same time, health care measures
were staggering. Large scale testing of symptomatic patients and their contacts was rolled out relatively
late, and there was an infected discussion whether the use of facial masks would be beneficial or not.
Maybe platforms like economic think tanks might have helped, or they might at least have contributed to
avoiding the infected public debate between scientists, endangering the trust of the public in science.

At the same time as networking is a good starting point for outreach to society, one should also be careful
not to get too comfortable with one another. Keeping one’s own research interest and agenda in mind is
an important dimension of striving to guarantee academic freedom. Freedom to do whatever research
one finds fascinating, freedom to choose the research angle and also the freedom to spend some decades
working on developing a set of scientific questions that at first do not seem to have an obvious benefit for
society. One such example is the discovery of the so-called genetic scissor Crispr/Cas9, a powerful tool for
precise genetic engineering in all organisms. The scientists behind this discovery, Emmanuelle Charpentier
and Jennifer Doudna, originally set out to discover a peculiar bacterial defense mechanism against viruses.
In 2020 they were rewarded with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Emmanuelle Charpentier has emphasized
many times that these discoveries would not have been possible without the time, trust and resources she
was given as a young researcher at Umeå University. This discovery, like many other scientific milestones,
could not have been ”ordered” by politicians or research funders.  

In other cases, much could be achieved by modest means. The symposium showcased a story of a
critically ill newborn child, who could not be diagnosed by genetic sequencing, despite the promise of
individual diagnosis and treatment for many diseases. In his dual role as both pediatrician at Karolinska
Institutet and researcher at SciLifeLab, Petter Brodin could analyze the samples of the patient with state-of-
the-art methods and arrive to a diagnosis. While the patient could be treated and is now healthy this raises
the question of how the divide between the hospital and the research lab can be closed. Many things are
already possible in modern health care, but need to be facilitated through financing and national coordination.
After all, not every clinic has a top-notch research laboratory, and the needed expertise, across the street.

Swedish universities have three central missions - research, teaching and outreach to society. Outreach is
often referred to as the ”third task” and gives least merit in the academic world. Many researchers also
simply experience a lack of time to engage in the ”third task”, the bit that comes on top of everything else
once the research and teaching is done. And surely not everybody has the ability, talent and wish to also
innovate, communicate and engage in policy making. During the symposium the thought of ”educating the
educators” was raised - after all a majority of the undergraduate and graduate students at universities will
not end up in academic research, but in places where they indeed can influence what science can be used
for, and thus influence society.

Different stakeholders should be close enough, but not too close, to create synergies where scientists can
maintain their academic integrity at the same time as they can reach out to society with their research. Maybe
the creation of more platforms, such as think tanks, where people can meet, could be a sustainable solution.
My mind wanders off to SCAS, where researchers from different research fields, countries, and stages in
their career interact and find common ground. Places like that, that promotes outreach of science to society,
are much needed.

Written by Natalie von der Lehr, science journalist


Listen to the SCAS Talks Spotlight podcast episode Opening the Ivory Tower Wide here >>.
Download the programme for the symposium Opening the Ivory Tower Wide here >> (PDF)
(public part, 19 May)