Published: 2021-03-12 10:32 | Updated: 2021-03-12 10:32

KI cracks down on hostile debate environment

Worried, female doctor massaging her forehead.
KI is taking the threats and harassment reported by researchers and the media very seriously. Photo: Getty Images

The KI Ethics Council has issued a statement condemning the increasingly hostile tone of debate, especially in connection with COVID-19.

Jonas Ludvigsson. Photo: Alexander Donka
After a barrage of threats and harassment, Jonas F Ludvigsson, professor and paediatrician, has opted out of COVID-19 research. Photo: Alexander Donka Photo: Alexander Donka

“The debate should be conducted in a more respectful, transparent and welcoming way, and what Jonas F Ludvigsson has had to put up with is wholly unacceptable,” says Claes Frostell, chairperson of Karolinska Institutet’s Ethics Council.

KI is taking the threats and harassment reported by researchers and the media very seriously. The increasingly hostile tone in the public debate and on social media has even made researchers abandon their work; one example is Jonas F Ludvigsson, who after a storm of hate mail stopped debating and researching the pandemic.

“Diversity of opinion is what nourishes societal development and is a cornerstone of a vibrant democracy,” says KI president Ole Petter Ottersen, who addressed the issue in a blog post back in April 2020. “It is wholly unacceptable for scientists to be threatened, harassed and even intimidated into silence. We all need to work together to condemn this and to protect the open constructive debate that lies at the heart of a healthy academic environment.”

New interventions planned

There are now several proposals for how to promote a healthier culture and support colleagues in the public debate. Karolinska Institutet’s interdisciplinary Resource Team Post-Pandemic (KIRP), which has been set up by the President, has tabled some proposals in a recent report. One of their goals is to inform people about the difference between KI as a public authority on the one hand and the personal opinions of individual researchers on the other. They also stress the importance of a respectful tone and of science-based reasoning.

KIRP talks of the need of more internal discussion to consolidate KI’s core values in relations between staff and its dealings with the outside community. More information campaigns and a series of webinars are among the proposals.

Claes Frostell, vetenskapligt ombud och ordförande i KI:s etikråd.
Claes Frostell, scientific representative and chair of KI's Ethics Council. Photo: Andreas Andersson

The Ethics Council hardens its tone

In one of a few statements since its reboot in 2019, KI’s Ethics Council now stresses the importance of an open debate environment that has room for all thoughts and opinions.

“The role of the Ethics Council is to strategically elucidate important ethical issues, such as the need of sound academic practice in research,” says Professor Frostell, chairperson of KI’s Ethics Council. “It is not good practice if the debate environment is so hostile that people revert to silence.”

Even if the Ethics Council has no legal authority, Frostell hopes that the statement can help managers forced to tackle the issue internally.

“There’s also a degree of self-criticism in our statement as we also urge our own researchers to maintain a respectful tone when participating in the media discourse,” he adds.

Support for staff

The HR Office has posted advice on the KI Staff Portal for people subjected to threats or harassment at work. It also stresses the possibility of obtaining support from their managers or the departmental management or HR section.

“Even if we haven’t seen an increase in threats or harassment, we want to make clear to those affected what support is available and stress that such conduct must be reported and that help is available,” says Mats Engelbrektson, HR director at KI.

Zero tolerance towards threats

KI’s head of security Niclas Johansson agrees that incidents must be reported.

“We have a zero-tolerance policy towards threats and harassment. If you’re a victim of such, you have to report it to the police,” he says. “We don’t know how common it is, but there’s probably a significant number of unreported cases that we need a better understanding of.” 

KI’s security service works closely with the HR Office to raise awareness of the matter and to help make sure that every single case is addressed.

“We’ve also taken this up in the KI management group, and informing people about the help and support that’s available. We need to learn more about how big the problem is if we’re to provide the best possible support,” says Johansson.