The Festive Lecture with the honorary doctors inspired Henrik Sjövall, who believe that this type of meeting should be at the heart of the academic life. Here, he shares his tumultuous thoughts after the three short lectures.
” Today I had the honour of listening to this year’s honorary doctors. I left the event both excited and inspired. Good scientists should have their heads in the sky but their feet on the ground. A researcher’s daily grind consists mainly of gruelling hard work, a seemingly never-ending gathering of data, and finally an often disappointing attempt to put a big, mysterious puzzle together. Moments of flow – if any – are generally brief. That’s why it is so pleasing to listen to really good scientists talk. They don’t need to prove themselves; instead they just talk about what they have done.
The three honorary doctors are from three different disciplines yet share that they all are engaged in relevance-driven research. Ann-Sofie Sandberg became interested in the diet-health connection early, and started out studying the relevance of dietary fibres and how they are broken down by different enzymes. Since fibres are normally handled by bacteria in the large intestine, the research team decided to study patients who had had their colon removed or bypassed. The idea seems natural, but to this day I can’t think of another way to find out fibres are handled in the small intestine. The research showed that certain enzymes can affect how fibres bind heavy metals such as iron and zinc, and these studies have subsequently been used to design our present dietary guidelines. The work of this research group also helped clarify the strong link between nutrition and health, something that will hopefully lead to the development of personal dietary profiles, meaning assessments of how a person’s presence and absence of certain enzymes affect the way he or she should eat. Thanks, stoma patients, for contributing to this pioneering work!
Next up was Richard Horton, the always enthusiastic editor-in-chief of The Lancet – the flagship of medical journals. Horton started out as a doctor, but as he was interested in ‘almost everything’, he soon changed paths and became an editor and eventually editor-in-chief for The Lancet. This resembles a story by Boswell: Samuel Johnson ran into an old classmate and the two men started politely asking each other about their respective jobs. When Dr Johnson presented himself as a philosopher, the old friend responded something like ‘Long ago I wanted to become a philosopher as well, but I couldn’t because I was far too good-humoured!’ Thank goodness Horton got that editor job. He would probably have made a good doctor, too, but his contributions as a global health prophet have been outstanding! Some readers of E-nytt (link) may recall that I wrote about a conference in Stockholm some months ago, ‘Global Health – Beyond 2015’, which Horton led with great brilliance. It was probably a good thing he didn’t become a philosopher!
So: Come down from the ivory tower, get out in the real world and help the politicians base their leadership on real knowledge!
Horton’s message was very clear: the university must embrace its responsibility to produce relevance-driven research. Today’s university culture, he said, is far to introverted, with internal ranking systems where publications are assigned unreasonable importance (said by the editor-in-chief of one of our most renowned journals!). Nobody can/wants to/has the energy to deal with the major problems; instead we are hiding in our labs hoping that nobody will kick in the door. That’s simply not enough. We keep over-consuming our global resources, and if we don’t find some important solutions, some well-respected prophets believe that the 2000s might be mankind’s last century in existence. The university has the knowledge, and if we don’t dare standing up and putting our knowledge to use to solve the global problems, who will?
So: Come down from the ivory tower, get out in the real world and help the politicians base their leadership on real knowledge! Not exactly what we want to hear, right?
The third honorary doctor, Samuel Stupp, works with regenerative medicine, which essentially concerns how to regrow damaged tissue. This is an area where Gothenburg is outstanding, partly owing to the Brånemark group. All types of human tissue cannot be replaced, so the plan is to figure out how to ‘trick’ mature cells into generating new tissue. This doesn’t sound entirely risk-free, yet a Mexican lizard provides a comforting example of the contrary: if it loses a foot, a new one grows back. Imagine if amputees could do the same thing! And what if we could make a broken spinal cord grow back together? Science fiction? Maybe. But, as somebody said afterwards: ‘The best way to take off from the ground is probably to aim at the stars.’
Towards the end of the lecture, Stupp criticised today’s system for research funding: since our largest problems will take a long time to solve and will require large amounts of resources, they will be impossible to solve in ‘project form’ with brief reporting of results in journals. Rather, some issues will require large networks and long-term funding commitments. Today’s system with risk capital expected to generate returns within a few years is simply useless in this respect. This is similar to Horton’s thoughts: long-term and relevance-driven publically funded research carried out in networks!
After the lectures, I had lunch with our assistant dean, Eric Hanse. We agreed that these types of meetings should constitute the very core of academic life, and that we somehow must re-establish them as such. Research has become too fragmented, with research teams hiding in their caves discussing internal issues. One exception to this, as mentioned by Richard Horton, is the scientific environment surrounding our recently lost colleague Björn Folkow. I received my training at his department and remember how he made associations high and low and made unexpected remarks that could turn an entire research project upside down. And – it is hard to imagine – people from the pharmaceutical industry (mainly Hässle) had the right to both attend and speak at our seminars!
Horton actually got a bit sentimental and said he had greatly appreciated the honour of spending a few months doing project work in the same city as this man! And, back in those days, being appointed honorary doctor at Folkow’s university was certainly beyond his wildest dreams. I strongly feel that Horton is one of the world’s 50 most influential health emissaries ever and feel proud of having contributed to Horton being appointed honorary doctor.
After shaking hands with the lecturers, I walked home with my head spinning. Why are these types of eye-opening lectures so rare? And, most importantly, where were the students? Exposing the right individuals to good academic dialogue must be by far the best way to recruit the next generation of researchers and teachers!
If Björn had still been with us, I think he would have approved of my thoughts…