28 May 2020

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is in the eye of the corona storm at his job at the Swedish Research Council. But he is also professor in medical cell biology at LiU, and has been appointed by the Swedish government to take on the mantle of vice-chancellor of Linköping University on 1 July.

On 1 July 2020, Jan-Ingvar Jönsson becomes vice-chancellor of Linköping University. Charlotte Perhammar

“I wonder if it’s possible to reschedule the interview to next Friday instead”, asks Jan-Ingvar Jönsson politely by email.

A meeting about EU collaboration in COVID-19 research has been scheduled, and as secretary general of the Swedish Research Council with responsibility for health and medicine, Jan-Ingvar is to participate as representative for the Swedish government.

It’s the end of April 2020, we’re living in remarkable times, and Linköping University remains in distance mode. Initially, Jan-Ingvar Jönsson had a reasonable amount to look after (according to his standards). But in the middle of April, the government allocated SEK 100 million for virus research, and suddenly he had more than enough on his plate.

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson must log in to a never-ending stream of meetings, such as the collaboration group under the European Commission, international researcher groups within WHO, colleagues in Nordic collaboration groups, or Swedish actors involved in clinical studies of COVID-19.

“We have to coordinate so that countries do not unnecessarily repeat work. And we need a structured collaboration so that we can share new results”, he says.

The scientific community is under enormous pressure to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control. Society must act now: this is a crisis. Do we have time for conventional quality control and ethical discussions?

“There are many questions that we must take the time needed to discuss”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.

“There are always risks when politicians want to decide. It can lead to researchers adapting what they say to the requirements of society, and allowing their normally critical approach to take a back seat.”

In addition, one integral risk characterises all research: the desire to be first may lead to compromises.

Secretary general of the Swedish Research Council

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson, rektor på Linköpings universitet (2020 - ) Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarJan-Ingvar Jönsson has been secretary general of the Swedish Research Council for the past four years, with scientific responsibility for medicine and health.

In addition to work with the grant-awarding process, he has served on national committees and in international organisations, advised the government on research issues, and helped develop future research policy.

He has also played an important role as coordinator for corona-directed research, reporting directly to the director general.

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is, as he himself says, involved in everything.

In theory, the post at the Swedish Research Council is 75% of full-time, but in practice he is always at work.

And just at the moment, it’s particularly tough.

As early as June, the government wants to know how the SEK 100 million it made available on 15 April is to be distributed.

“Let’s sit outside”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson and walks through the kitchen to the patio. He mentions in passing the state of the house, and its clear need for TLC.

“It’s high time I did something about it, I suppose. I’ll probably have time during the summer.”

LiU’s new vice-chancellor has a practical side and is happy using his hands. Painting the house, for example, or building an extension. Or controlling his racing bike hurtling down a mountain in France at 70 kilometres an hour (although he does admit that it’s been a while since he reached such speeds).

cykeldetalj Photo credit Magnus Johansson“I suppose the speed I reach when cycling to the university will depend on what I’ve got on the agenda that day. If I have to wear a suit, I’ll slow down a bit”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.

None of LiU’s previous vice-chancellors has had a background in medical research. Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is the first. And it’s probable that none of his predecessors has had such broad and concrete experience in international collaboration, nor such influence over research policy.

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson arrived at Linköping University in 2003. By then he had accumulated nine important years of research at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg, followed by a period in Toronto, working on blood stem cells and the immune system. It wasn’t immediately clear where the family would eventually end up. In the end, they decided on Linköping and a fixed point not far from the lock at Hjulsbro.

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson, rektor på Linköpings universitet (2020 - ) Photo credit Charlotte PerhammarHe was appointed professor in medical cell biology in 2008, working at the Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences. But he could just as easily have ended up as a professional jazz pianist. For a while, the choice between a career in science and one on the stage was hanging in the balance.

“But I wasn’t sure that I was good enough for a career as professional pianist.”

His field of research has never ceased to fascinate

He was good enough, however, to be appointed professor. And chose a field of research, blood, that has never ceased to fascinate him.

“Where does it come from? Why does it never run out? And why do blood cells react so differently in the various diseases that affect the blood system? The questions are simple, but the answers complex.”

Is it ever possible to say exactly when something begins? Such as a career in research?

Jan-Ingvar Jönsson has to think, but only for a moment.

“As children, we were taught to question everything we heard, to consider whether what we heard was true or not, and form our own ideas and principles. I think that this gave me a secure basis. And curiosity about pretty much anything was then added to this.”

He was awarded a prize by Lund University for a project he carried out during a summer break. A journey to Lund and a visit to Akademibokhandeln was another starting point for a research career.

“I had never seen so many books in one place. And I wanted to study everything.”

He ended up studying molecular biology in Lund. A chance opportunity turned out to be decisive, and Jan-Ingvar Jönsson worked as a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute of Immunology. Enthusiastic, stubborn and working with some wild ideas.

He experienced in the lab an almost magical joy of research.

“I managed by myself to work out how an experiment could answer a complex question”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.

It became clear that his idea was successful, and the world-leading researchers at the Max Planck Institute were quick to congratulate him, for the elegant solution. What an achievement!

Jan Ingvar Jönsson and the Cytof2A further major research success occurred at LiU.

“I managed to acquire a research grant to purchase an advanced instrument, a CyTOF mass cytometer. I can’t describe how happy I was to receive the equipment. This was the first to be installed in Sweden, and we could carry out extremely advanced analysis of the proteins in cells, and develop this research field”, says Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.

Accustomed to dealing with storms

Now the vice-chancellor’s chain of office awaits, and with it the leadership of a broad university with approximately 30,000 people, and a huge diversity of wills. Further, a role in the public sphere.

Photo credit Magnus JohanssonThis is not something that Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is worried about. He has a certain experience of public performance to rely on. Not least from a period when he was active in student theatrical performances in Lund, and had to come up with rapid and humorous replies.

There are some occasions when storms arise, but again Jan-Ingvar Jönsson is accustomed to dealing with these.

“It’s important to be able to take it easy and to be transparent”, he says.

Throughout the years, scandals have arisen in which the way in which the Swedish Research Council has controlled grants awarded to projects in medical research has been questioned. And Jan-Ingvar Jönsson was the person who was compelled to face the media.

The Macchiarini scandal at Karolinska Institutet was unique.

“I remember that my response the evening it was made public was: how on earth was this possible? What happened?

And the failure of those who were responsible in the Macchiarini scandal to take responsibility really made me furious.”

The responsibility for research lies in principle with the institutions of higher education, and research ethics is high on Jan-Ingvar Jönsson’s long list of priorities as vice-chancellor.

“I believe we need to establish an advisory body that can discuss ethical questions and promote ideas about how to ensure research integrity. But research depends on research environments that are secure, creative and provide the opportunity for open collaboration between different fields of research, with international research groups, and with the society around us. I hope that this will be my major contribution to improving research at Linköping University.”

Translated by George Farrants



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