Engagement, trust and truth

The Aula and Edvard Munch’s monumental paintings sat a perfect frame for our annual celebration yesterday. This was my address to the University and the new honorary doctores.

Bildet kan inneholde: smil, sosial gruppe, samfunnet, hodeplagg, akademisk kjole.

Æresdoktorer, prisvinnere, styret og universitetets ledelse

Located in the heart of Oslo, between the Parliament and the Royal palace, with the National theatre next door, it highlights the role that academia, knowledge and culture play in society. Here, we celebrate. Here, we discuss. And here, we engage with society on questions that are important to us all.

The Aula is also a place to enjoy the arts - and to remember our history. Here, Louis Armstrong, Sergei Rachmaninov, Stan Getz and many more have performed. And here, many young talents have made their debut. One of them is one of this years honorary doctors Leif Ove Andsnes who made his debut here at age 17, playing one of Beethoven's sonatas, opus 110.

Here, the Nobel peace prize was awarded from 1947 to 1989. Mother Theresa, Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King - raised burning global issues from this stage. But these walls have also witnessed the brutal face of war. During the last days of November 1943, 1200 students were interred in the Aula. 644 of them were sent to Buchenwald and Sennheim in Germany. 17 never came back.

Today, we are once more faced with brutal war in Europe, in Ukraine – and in many ways, this is a marker, or indicator, of a changing world order.

The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. The quote is by Elie Wiesel - who received the Nobel Peace Prize from this stage in 1986 – and is not less important today. We are obliged to react and act faced with the Russian invasion and violence in Ukraine. As society, as university and as humans. The war in Ukraine comes on top of challenges such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, hunger, conflicts, energy shortage to name a few. These are all challenges universities must engage in. Academic responsibility follows from academic freedom.

Rektoratets to æresdoktorer: Hirut Woldemariam og Leif Ove Andsnes

Universities play a key role in fostering solutions to complex global challenges. One obvious example is the covid pandemic. Just think about this:

One month after people started to become ill with Covid-19, the virus genome was digitally mapped. A vaccine, based on mRNA technologies, was rapidly developed. New mutant viruses have been meet with LEGO-like "plug and play" approaches within weeks.

“Without decades of long-term basic research, this would not have been possible.” The quote is not be me, but by Dr. Plotkin, in TIME Magazine's Heroes of the year article The miracle workers. It describes the decades’ long struggles of researchers working with mRNA as a basis for vaccines. It tells of progress and setbacks, of rejections of applications for funding, as it was not “useful” enough, and eventually of breakthroughs.

This is not a unique example, but it illustrates a crucial point: Neither politicians nor research leaders nor bureaucrats can predict what kind of knowledge we will need in the future. This is one reason why long-term basic research is so important.

Increasingly, we see that long-term basic research is pushed aside to make room for more thematic research initiatives or other political issues. We worry about this development and urge national and international research councils to secure predictable and sustainable funding also for long-term basic research.

The pandemic made this need evident. Never in modern times was there such a clear demonstration of the importance of having a scientific “knowledge reservoir”.

Science works. Basic science work.

Luckily, most Norwegians have trust in scientific knowledge. The way the pandemic was handled seems to have strengthened this. Cutting edge research fast became an everyday topic of conversation. Reproduction rates and theories of viral origin and spread were discussed at kitchen tables all over the country. Methods, uncertainty, and disagreement - even among scientists advising our government - were displayed on real time and prime time news.

It is a paradox, that at the same time, we see social groups and individuals on both ends of the political spectrum who are reluctant to accept facts that challenge their own view of the world. Polarization and growing skepticism about scientific knowledge and scientific expertise challenge society and academia in Norway and globally. The rise of populist parties and unconventional political leadership are creating a poorer climate for public debate and evidence-based decision-making.

«Democracy Dies in Darkness", reads the Washington Post's slogan. A number of prominent researchers, experts, politicians and intellectuals have warned that today we seem to be moving into such a "darkness" where democracy could be weakened, undermined or even die. We cannot stand indifferent to this.

This shift seldom occurs with a bang, but starts with smaller undercurrents that won’t catch the public eye or interest. But universities are often ones of the first to feel the heat. Limitations on academic freedom and institutional autonomy, and attacks on individual researchers might not make the headlines, but are serious warning signs or a “canary test” for the health of democracy.

Among the initiatives that the University of Oslo is taking this year is to establish a new interdisciplinary research program about democracy. This program will explore democracy as a form of governance, the institutions of democracy, the role of citizens and diversity, and democracy in everyday life.

Knowledge is key.

Bildet kan inneholde: smil, kjole, mote, underholdning, scenekunst.
Sofie Høgestøl - en svært fortjent vinner av UiOs formidlingspris

We are proud to have a large and strong community of scholars and students, at home and abroad. Together we fill knowledge gaps, and we question existing knowledge by posing new questions and identifying new challenges. This is really what it is all about: Brainpower. The world’s greatest and most powerful source of renewable energy. That power is fueled by curiosity, and by being constantly challenged.

So. Every year on 2 September, we honor the free pursuit of knowledge by celebrating academic achievements and people who have made outstanding efforts for the arts and sciences. So let me extend an extra warm welcome and congratulations to our prize-winners and to the new honorary doctors. You are truly an inspiration!

The creation of honorary doctors is an important institutional celebration at the University of Oslo, dating back to 1902. It is important to us because it connects skilled scientists, thinkers and artists worldwide. Our honorary doctors have - in different ways - contributed with knowledge, curiosity, and creativity to enlighten their field and strengthen the global academy of knowledge.

And that is more important than ever. Academic cooperation unleashes creativity, but also fosters understanding and builds trust across national borders and cultural divides. Universities should be engaging, trust-building as well as truth-seeking. In our age of turbulence, these three words – engagement, trust and truth – are intertwined, and we stand in need of all three.

This leads me to my final point. The pandemic also revealed huge inequalities in the knowledge system. Long-term investment in addressing the structural inequalities in the global academy is necessary and long overdue. All our challenges – pandemics, climate change, inequality, social and political polarization – extend beyond national borders and require global solutions. We need better tools to develop institutional capacities and build human capabilities across the world to address our transnational challenges.

As a community, we must learn to swim together or we will collectively sink.

Oline Sæther - leder av studentparlamentet 

Thank you for celebrating with us today, and for being part of our academic community. A community where we are free to think and write, where we build on, but also challenge established truths. Where we believe in diversity and cooperation. And finally, where we stand up for democracy, for human rights, for the right to critical enquiry and where we do not stand indifferent.

Av Svein Stølen
Publisert 3. sep. 2022 10:07 - Sist endret 3. sep. 2022 11:07
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Foto: Jarli & Jordan/UiO