Sweden moves to strengthen academic freedom after researcher harassed for pandemic study

By | February 21, 2021

Sweden has vowed better protections for academic freedom after a leading Swedish researcher quit his work on COVID-19 after facing an onslaught of attacks for his research being too optimistic about the virus.

“It is deeply concerning when academics are threatened to the extent that they don’t have the courage to keep on doing their job. This is not a new phenomenon, but we have seen an increase of threats against academics related to research on the coronavirus. When people are silenced, it’s a threat against the freedom of speech and our democracy,” said Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s minister for higher education and research.

“To strengthen academic freedom, the Swedish government has proposed a new amendment that points out that education and research must be protected to enable people to freely discover, research, and share knowledge,” she said.

The comments come after Jonas Ludvigsson, a pediatrician at Orebro University Hospital and a professor of clinical epidemiology at the Karolinska Institute, published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that the first wave of the pandemic barely affected Sweden’s youth despite being one of the few countries to keep schools open last spring.

The study found that from March 1 through June 30, only 16 children in Sweden between the ages of 1 and 16 were treated for coronavirus-related symptoms in that country’s intensive care units.

“That is the equivalent of 0.77 intensive care patients per 100 000 children in that age group. Four of the children had underlying diseases,” Ludvigsson said of the data at the time. “None of the children died within two months after their period of intensive care.”

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Ludvigsson noted that his research was “an actual study” that had been peer-reviewed, while also noting that he changed the manuscript four times before publication. Despite this, the researcher faced relentless attacks for the optimistic tone of his work.

The attacks became too much for Ludvigsson, who said he eventually lost his “appetite for COVID-19 — both when it comes to speaking out and researching.”

The threats against academics trying to do their jobs has caught the attention of Ole Petter Ottersen, the president of the Karolinska Institute, who said that important debates require a diversity of opinion.

“A tough debate and a diversity of opinions based on facts and evidence are necessary elements of science and public discourse, but hateful and scornful accusations and personal attacks cannot be tolerated. We already see that researchers retreat from the public debate after being threatened or harassed, and in my own institution, a leading researcher just decided to give up his COVID-19 research for the same reason,” he said, referring to Ludvigsson.

Ottersen argued that robust debate on the pandemic is vital, noting that “the coronavirus did not come with a handbook.”

“In a situation with so many unknowns, it is more important than ever that opinions are voiced and experts heard, even if their opinions run counter to current policies,” he said.

Ottersen believes that the government should get involved in protected academic freedom, but he noted that researchers need “to keep a decent tone in debates and discussions.”

“We need to ensure that our researchers understand the concept and value of academic freedom and the responsibility that comes with it,” Ottersen said. “Here, we still have a way to go.”

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