Go back

The Swedish presidency and academic freedom

31 July 2023

Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt, Uppsala University 

The Swedish EU presidency can probably be best described as efficient and unglamorous. Run on a shoestring budget, with most meetings located at Arlanda airport, it focused on making progress on EU legislation (migration, data, AI, climate) ­– and quite successfully so. In the areas of research and education, where there was no legislation in the pipeline, the Presidency picked up on strategic, forward-looking discussions. If there were a main problematique to these discussions, it was openness, or rather the calibration of Europe’s openness to the world.

Openness is top of my mind as a rector, as it touches upon the fundamental issues of academic freedom and academic responsibility. Let me illustrate by considering the Presidency’s achievements.

At their meeting on 23 May, EU research ministers staked out the agenda on Open Publishing, calling for immediate and unrestricted open access in publishing research involving public funds. The Lund Declaration, adopted on 20 June, reaffirmed the importance of Open Science practices in the research process and data infrastructures. Rightly so!  

Research ministers also held the first ever EU debate on responsible internationalization, launching the slogan: As open as possible, as secure as necessary. In the debate, knowledge security featured prominently, illustrated by host of security-driven restrictions planned or implemented in different member states. On 23 June, the European Commission threw its weight behind this agenda; in its  communication on Economic Security, it talks about knowledge leakage and the particular need to control knowledge relating to security critical technology.

Now the tension in this agenda is obvious: if we are to publish everything openly there is bound to be “leakage”, whatever that means. However, we also need to acknowledge that there are conflicting aims that need managing. After all, as academic leaders, we balance conflicting aims every day, for instance by promoting international mobility while simultaneously seeking to reduce our carbon footprint. Balancing openness against security is no different, but it requires both vigilance and strategy.

We need to be particularly vigilant regarding how openness is calibrated. On substance, any new measure needs to be proportional, and not go beyond what is required for the stated aims, while respecting academic freedom. On procedure, any new measures needs to be introduced in dialogue, acknowledging the principle of academic responsibility. Political interference in academic freedom and academic responsibility is not acceptable.

Our longer-term strategy needs to be to educate policy-makers. Few deny the point and value of expanding the boundaries of human knowledge. However, not many understand the efforts and conditions required to do so effectively. For instance, despite its tremendously successful track-record, the European Research Council feels under constant attack by those that do not understand the point of it being independent.

As educators we need the energy and courage to consistently restate the value of basic research, while also mobilizing support from others beyond the academic community. The EU is a hugely important platform for this endeavor. We rely on the Coimbra Group and others to help us mobilize and express the need and requirements for basic research.

Ceterum censeo: I want to thank the Coimbra Group for its firm reaction to the Swedish government’s proposal to shorten the mandate of university board members. This issue is still not resolved, and I maintain the view that the change is misguided and ineffective.