02 September 2021

Academic freedom cannot be taken for granted. Linköping University joined the international network Scholars at Risk in June 2021. This network helps scholars who cannot work due to such factors as threats and persecution.

photo, woman at globe.
Karin Gibson Ulrik Svedin
Twenty-three institutions of higher education and other bodies in Sweden are now members of Scholars at Risk (SAR). The network was founded in Chicago in 1999 and has its headquarters at New York University.

SAR follows current events around the world and publishes an annual report, Free to Think, in which researchers describe attacks on scholars. Photo credit Thor Balkhed


“We’re very happy to have joined the Swedish Scholars at Risk network and in this way contribute to supporting researchers in countries where academic freedom is limited. We can offer them a sanctuary in which to continue their work. It cannot be denied that we are seeing worrying developments in many countries, some of them in Europe. We see that political power structures limit freedom of speech and persecute academics. This is completely unacceptable”, says Vice-Chancellor Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.

Karin Gibson from the International Affairs and Collaborations Division at LiU coordinates LiU’s participation in the network. Procedures are being drawn up for practical collaboration with SAR:

“Becoming a member is an important statement of solidarity. The next step is to consider and analyse the knowledge the network has about attacks on the freedom of academics around the globe”, says Karin Gibson.

Each year, SAR supports more than 300 scholars who have been subjected to harassment, threats of violence, being
deprived of work, persecution or imprisonment.


Becoming a member is an important statement of solidarity 


The right to express an opinion or publish scientific results without the risk of reprisal is a fundamental human right.
In many places in the world, however, the self-determination of both individual researchers and institutions of higher education is under threat.

“Limitations on scholars and researchers is an early phase in the process of limiting democracy in a country. This is why it’s important that we who live in open democracies help academics in countries governed by authoritarian systems”, says Karin Gibson.

Applications from Afghanistan

Europe and North America are home to the most active member countries of SAR, while large fractions of the researchers under threat are from Turkey and Syria.
Events are happening all the time around the world that affect academic freedom. I recently received a general appeal to all members from the SAR headquarters, since the number of applications from Afghanistan, among other countries, has increased dramatically.

Will LiU offer a home to researchers who need protection?
“It’s too early to know when we will be able to do this. The institutions of higher education that do so receive a great deal of support from the network, but at the same time it is a huge undertaking. We need to survey interest in receiving researchers. As a university, we can also seek to exert pressure, and publish research into such topics as democracy and freedom of speech”, says Karin Gibson.

Why should an institution of higher education help vulnerable researchers, and what can a university gain by doing so?

“First of all, it’s an expression of solidarity. We show that the world will not accept persecution and erosion of academic freedom. And it’s also a way to increase understanding between nations. There are many questions and challenges that we can’t solve on our own: everyone must contribute, independently of where borders have been drawn. Furthermore, providing sanctuary can increase the quality of our university. We can attract researchers with knowledge that may not be available in Sweden”, says Karin Gibson.

She emphasises that SAR does more that its work to promote academic freedom in countries with deficient democracy. One example is a tool that it has developed, the Academic Freedom Index, that summarises several characteristics of restrictions on academic freedom. Political influence when appointing the boards of institutions of higher education, as is the case in Sweden and several other countries, is one such indicator.

 Freedom is under threat, even in a free and democratic society 
“For us who live in a democratic society, it’s more about discussing how we can preserve these concepts and defend democracy. Academic freedom is extensive in Sweden, but it is not something we can take for granted.”

Karin Gibson points out how often research-based knowledge is questioned in society, without any scientific basis.

“Freedom of opinion also means that science can be questioned by such opinions, and sometimes in a threatening manner through social media. This is an example of how academic freedom is under threat, even in a free and democratic society”, says Karin Gibson.
(Translated by George Farrants)



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