“It’s imperative that researchers from KI take part in public discourse and debate”

Sharing knowledge in the media is important, says Jan Albert. Photo from morning studio at SVT (Swedish public service television).

During the new coronavirus outbreak many researchers at Karolinska Institutet are contributing their competence and views to the public flow of information. Sharing knowledge is important. But researchers, particularly, must also base their reasoning on facts and express themselves clearly, including about matters of uncertainty, says Jan Albert, professor of infectious disease control at Karolinska Institutet and convenor of KI’s COVID-19 expert team.

“It’s imperative that researchers from KI take part in the public discourse and debate,” says Jan Albert, professor of infectious disease control, specialising in clinical virology, at Karolinska Institutet’s Department of Microbiology. “We have a lot of expertise within the walls of KI and sharing it is part of our commission.

At times of crisis, this is particularly important. When my knowledge is required for something other than pure research, it’s important to bear in mind that my salary and academic freedom are largely paid for by tax payers.”

Challenge in communication

As convenor of KI’s COVID-19 expert team, Jan Albert is often seen in the media answering questions from journalists and the general public. “The facts that there are still so many uncertainties about the virus and that our understanding of it is constantly changing present a challenge in our communication,” he states.

Photo: Martin Stenmark

“We need to be clear when we are certain and when our statements are more assumptions or guesses,” he continues. “I always try to be clear about what we’re sure about and what we’re unsure about, and to explain that it’s not so strange that there isn’t detailed knowledge about everything since the virus and the disease are so new, and we’re learning as we go along.”

Over the past few weeks the Swedish strategy for handling the spread of COVID-19 has been the cause of much debate. A dozen researchers from Karolinska Institutet have written op-ed articles expressing their views on how the authorities and society are handling the situation.

What do you think about the criticism aimed at Sweden’s strategy?

“The criticism has been savage and more emotional than objective and factual in a way that I think leads to unnecessary and unfortunate polarisation,” says Professor Albert. “Sometimes the comments have been a little too arrogant – deep down, I believe that all these researchers know that much is uncertain. That said, it’s important that different viewpoints are aired.”

According to Professor Albert, no one yet knows for sure how successful different national strategies are.

“We know that some countries like Finland and Norway have had a slower spread of the disease than Sweden, but no one knows yet what the best strategy will be in the long run when it comes to striking a balance between flattening the curve and the consequences of a lockdown.”

Balance

Professor Albert identifies another balance, this time between making what he says intelligible to the layperson and keeping his answers knowledge-based in his communication with journalists and the general public. To him, factual reasoning is a demand that can be made of academic researchers engaged in the public discourse.

“Those of us who are researchers and scientifically schooled must be even more careful than other people to base what we say and write on facts. We are experts in our fields and trained in the gathering and evaluation of knowledge. A researcher’s argument must be factual and clear in terms of what is assumption and what is certain.”

Karolinska Institutet’s president, Ole Petter Ottersen, emphasises in one of his recent blogs the value of academic freedoms. We also have freedom of expression in Sweden. Professor Albert feels that as a researcher at KI, he has considerable freedom to choose what he researches and what comments he makes:

“It’s up to me to choose if and how I am to comment, and to stand by what I say. I have a responsibility towards the university both in terms of how I research and how I express myself in the media, but I don’t feel under the university’s control,” he says.

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