DOCTORAL STUDENTS. This year’s PhD Day concerned how a global crisis affects health and research. During the lunch break, doctoral students had an opportunity to share their experiences of the pandemic with Vice Dean Martin Lagging, who is responsible for PhD studies at Sahlgrenska Academy.
PhD Day had been scheduled for this spring but had to be postponed due to the pandemic. Hosts for the completely online event were Salma Pardhan, a doctoral student at the Institute of Health and Care Sciences, and Maria Hammarlund, a doctoral student at the Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology. Helena Nilvér and Lilja Thorgeirsdóttir, both doctoral students at the Institute of Health and Care Sciences, also took part in planning this year’s PhD Day.
During the morning, three talks presented different perspectives on the world during the pandemic. Thomas Sterner, a professor of environmental economics at the University of Gothenburg, began by painting a dismal picture of the current situation by listing not just one, but four crises that characterize the world today. In addition to the health crisis posed by the pandemic, he also highlighted the economic crisis, the ecological crisis and the political crisis, in which populist leaders and dictatorships have been given considerable leeway.
He maintained that the economic crisis is likely to kill more people than the pandemic.
“The pandemic has a very negative effect on the global economy. Many developing countries depend on continued high growth rates. When GDP falls, it will increase extreme poverty in many countries in the world.”
The crises are interconnected
Several observations show that the global environmental crisis has at least temporarily improved from the pandemic. In Punjab in northern India, the air has cleared so that it is now possible to see the Himalayan mountain range on the horizon with the naked eye. But to keep the climate crisis from progressing, we need to change our emissions-generating habits for the better.
“The economic crisis has led to a sharp decline in oil prices, which increases oil consumption. All countries should impose high taxes on fossil fuels, but instead we see that many countries are giving rescue packages to their airlines to cope with the crisis. If we need to continue reducing our flying in the future, all these airlines will still not survive,” noted Thomas Sterner, who ended with a glimmer of light.
“This is a trying time for everyone, especially for those who are poor or sick. But there are good opportunities to enjoy reading and studies for those able to do so. This is a great time to be a researcher. I personally have never published as much as now.”
Damon Barrett, a human rights lawyer and researcher at the School of Public Health and Community Medicine, drew parallels between his own field of research, practices and policies for control of narcotics and how societies restrict human rights to deal with the pandemic. Both narcotics and the pandemic pose serious threats to the population. There is contention between those willing to forgo many human freedoms to completely eradicate the problem and those who prefer to focus on limiting harm but to preserve the human right to freedom.
“I am not saying that certain rights cannot be limited to meet the public health challenges. Obviously they can. We would be paralyzed if we failed to meet the challenges. But this should be given much more attention and cause more public concern than has been the case so far,” said Damon Barrett.
He argues that these decisions about rights are some of the most important that any government can make.
“Both in the control of narcotics and of COVID, these forms of coercion are popular with large segments of the population. New exceptional threats of this kind will be used to justify infringements of rights. Those who monitor human rights often run up against this, and it is also an important lesson from the fight against narcotics.”
Vaccinate if you want to travel
He called for a discussion of what harm we really want to protect ourselves from and what values we want to preserve, but noted that the pandemic will continue to affect our rights and our freedom of movement for a long time to come.
“People living with HIV were finally allowed to enter the United States only a few years ago. People who use illegal drugs are still banned from entering the country. How unlikely is it then that we will receive immunization passports or other identity documents that show we have been vaccinated against COVID so we can be admitted into the country?”
The psychology of morality
The third speaker of the morning was Christian Munthe, professor of practical philosophy, who is involved in several of the Sahlgrenska Academy’s courses and study programs dealing with ethics and values. He talked about how the crisis facing humankind affects our moral psychology. For research, this means that the focus quickly shifts to the practical implementation, which is an ethical change that requires critical scrutiny.
“Researchers are chasing quick fixes that can provide a treatment for COVID-19 or a vaccine. Almost any approach will be acceptable. Biomedical researchers are not equipped to deal with an acute crisis of this kind, and you may need help to be able to think outside your own box.”
Researchers can find it tempting to search for the definitive answer–the silver bullet that will kill the werewolf. The urgency of the situation is accelerating science, and the guardrails usually built into the academic systems have been set aside. That presents a risk of failing to adjust to a slower speed. Scholarly publications are made available before allowing time for a peer review, which resulted in almost 40 articles on COVID-19 being withdrawn after they have already been circulated.
Researchers have also been involved in the polarization of the debate, where one is either for or against the best way to handle the pandemic.
“When people on the other side are called idiots, it destroys constructive discussion. Those of us in academia can play an important role in that debate by encouraging discussion and weighing the pros and cons of both approaches against each other,” said Christian Munthe.
Martin Lagging, vice dean for PhD studies, was available during lunch to listen to how doctoral students were affected during the pandemic. He fully understood that the pandemic is extremely stressful, perhaps especially for doctoral students who have recently begun their doctoral studies and who plan to visit other laboratories as part of their doctoral project. His advised students to find flexible and creative solutions in consultation with supervisors and their institute. The possibility of applying for funding for additional time for their doctoral studies also came up during the dialogue with the vice dean, but Martin Lagging thought it could be difficult for higher education institutions to find the funding required as long as the government does not announce that they will receive compensation for such an extension.
Networking and discussion
In the afternoon Roger Ahlgren, from Boston Scientific, a medical technology company, and Fredrik Eisner, from Eli Lilly, a pharmaceutical company, provided insight into how industry has been affected and handled the consequences of the pandemic.
Åsa Torinsson Naluai, a researcher at Sambio Core Facilities, gave a presentation with a research perspective. She has incorporated COVID-19 into her research program on inflammatory diseases. Dr. Bayan, who fled Iraq with his family and now lives in Great Britain, was then interviewed. Dr. Baylan talked about the effects of the philanthropic organization she started in her homeland.
The day ended with networking and discussion sessions in separate rooms about funding, innovation and Doctors Without Borders. A breakout room offered the opportunity to just have a social after-work period together. Invited guest experts included Ann Hellström (Swedish Research Council), Tina Verolin (Grants and Innovation Office) and Kristina Elfving (Doctors Without Borders).
No date has been set for the next PhD Day, but it is planned for next autumn, when there are hopes it can be an in-person event, depending on how the spread of infection develops. If you are interested in participating in planning next year’s PhD Day, feel free to contact the Doctoral Student Council at email@example.com.
TEXT: ELIN LINDSTRÖM