Important to support multidisciplinary environments
Recently, a collaboration at the Center for Multidisciplinary Research on Racism (Cemfor) was debated in the media. Research on current societal issues can often lead to debate and questions being asked. Therefore, support for emerging multidisciplinary research environments is important. They often face difficult trade-offs and debates.
Researchers at UU have provided contributions to the European Islamophobia Report 2021. In October 2022, a debate started in the media about the political aspects behind the report.
The criticism has consisted primarily of two parts. On the one hand, questions arose as to whether it is good that academic research contributes to reports linked to the current leadership in Turkey, and there is also an image from a Twitter feed in the report that has produced reactions.
An end to the affiliation
Cemfor chose to affiliate itself with the report published in September 2022. In addition to this affiliation, a researcher at the Department of Theology at Uppsala University has been involved in writing the report from Sweden.
It was only before the report for 2021 that was published in September 2022 that there was an official collaboration between UU and the report.
After Cemfor became aware that the report has links to the current leadership in Turkey, Cemfor ended the affiliation.
“Cemfor has ended its affiliation and contacted the organization that published the report requesting Cemfor's association with the report to be removed. They have been told that they will do what they can, but the symbol is still there if you download the report,” says Cecilia Wejryd, dean of the Faculty of Theology.
Should Cemfor have been more vigilant? It is a sensitive research area that often stirs up emotions, and the report has been under fire before.
“Absolutely. In the ambition to be a player in international racism research, Cemfor chose to affiliate itself with the report from 2021, and American universities such as Rutgers and Berkeley did the same. This is because the report was no longer claimed to be tied to the Turkish leadership. But it turned out to be a false front and Cemfor's affiliation was ended.”
Image from Twitter feed
Two Swedish authors featured in a screenshot from a Twitter feed described in the report have criticized the university and feel ostracised. The Twitter image is used in the report to show trends in the Swedish media.
“We regret the reproduction of the Twitter image. The image has been published in a Twitter feed and the image is being reproduced in the report because the report is an overview of what has happened in the media. However, when switching from Twitter to printed publications, permission should be obtained even if the image was already in the public domain.
Could there be several similar problematic collaborations for Cemfor?
“When I asked for a list of all of Cemfor's collaborations, I received it within ten minutes. Cemfor’s management has gone through the list and discussed it. For a multidisciplinary centre tasked to act nationally and internationally, it would be devastating not to have collaborations with both authorities and various societal actors, boldness is needed. At the same time, collaborations must be made judiciously, and I have full confidence in the management at Cemfor.”
Associated with a culture of silence
The report is a description of what the media situation was like in 2021.
“The report provides an overview of what happened in the media, and what has been published in journalistic and social media in Sweden during the year. It is there to show what has happened in the media debate. Unfortunately, these types of media reviews are often misinterpreted as meaning that the university or researcher has opinions or stands behind statements in the media.”
At the same time as this media debate took place, the culture of silence at higher education institutions has also been debated in the media. Cecilia Wejryd sees clear links between the two issues.
“Researchers in vulnerable subject areas often use self-censorship following different types of threats. In this case, a scientist dared to stick out his chin. Some research areas are particularly hard hit by restrictions on their freedom of movement and by the culture of silence, sometimes even from debaters who claim to work for an open society.”
Cecilia Wejryd emphasizes the importance of the fact that somewhere in society there must be an opportunity to raise difficult and complex societal issues. Cemfor focuses on racism, which is a difficult societal problem, and it is important that research explores, reviews and contributes to solutions.
“It is important that universities are a place where we discuss complicated issues, because where else can we raise these issues in society? But it is easy for young researchers to be intimidated into research areas that are monitored by different groups in society. It is easy to get hung out to dry and often there is very little support for the individual researcher. This easily leads to self-censorship. This in turn leads to restrictions on the freedom of research, and our remit which is to scrutinize suffers as a result. One issue that is a concern is that the issue at hand, that is, the issue of perceived discrimination against Muslims in Sweden, is down-prioritized. This is unfortunate and also shows how difficult it is to reach out with research results on difficult issues.”
Multidisciplinary research often makes waves
Many important societal issues require collaborations between different research disciplines in order to formulate solutions and ways forward for society.
Researchers who want to take on these major societal challenges are therefore often involved in starting multidisciplinary research environments.
“It takes time to build up a new research field, but it often leads to strong reactions from the outside world. For example, we recognize these reactions to Cemfor from the construction of gender studies.”
At the same time, the search for answers to major societal issues is demanded by society and is an important aspect of being able to overcome serious problems in society.
“Multidisciplinary research is today’s way of dealing with the major overarching societal issues. Researchers who are establishing new fields of research are constantly working with this type of problem which involves navigating between differing established general opinions in society within a specific subject. But it also involves how to take advantage of the various methods used within the research, theoretical discussions, etc.”
“We must help all our multidisciplinary research environments to be able to exist and not escape into our specific subject areas,” concludes Cecilia Wejryd.