Researchers must not stop asking questions
“Explaining is not defending”, said Russia researcher Julie Wilhelmsen upon receiving the Fritt Ord Foundation Prize for 2023 on Thursday evening. The prize was awarded to her for contributing expert knowledge to the heated public debate both before and after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In so doing, she has demonstrated the importance of daring to speak out and exercise academic freedom of expression in practice.
“Researchers must be able to make mistakes without falling for the temptation to sacrifice alternative analyses for fear that the situation could become too difficult if society were mobilised for conflict. To my mind, this has pushed Norwegian and international discussions about the war off track over the past year”, remarked Julie Wilhelmsen in her speech at the awards ceremony at the Opera House in Oslo.
She continued: “We can’t afford this! We are an open, knowledge-based society. Researchers must not stop asking questions, openly and with humility, on their own terms, before we provide tentative answers. There must be grey areas! Not in relation to questions about whether an action like the invasion of another country or a war crime is right or wrong. That is crystal clear. However, researchers need transparency in their analyses of what led to the catastrophe that is Russia’s war against Ukraine”, according to Wilhelmsen. She has been accused of being a Putin adherent, USA hater and fifth columnist as a result of her analyses.
Wilhelmsen referred to the Covid crisis, Russia’s war of aggression, and a potential future conflict between China and Taiwan: “It has been asserted that my moral compass is broken. But explaining is not defending”, maintained Julie Wilhelmsen, extolling what she called ‘the eco-system of open exchanges’ between research, politics and public debate.
“Having plenty of latitude for academic freedom of expression should be a matter of course – a prerequisite”, commented Grete Brochmann, chair of the Fritt Ord Board, in her speech at the awards ceremony.
“Knowledge and understanding evolve over time, through ambivalence and doubt, and through the testing of objective arguments in open discussions. However, the methods of academia are especially vulnerable in the face of war. The fear of taking a wrong step is greater. The more important the topic and the more there is at stake, the harder it is to go against the tide, or to choose perspectives other than those of the majority. The consensus-driven requirement for loyalty and support for official positions, or broadly accepted attitudes, may be so powerful that certain researchers shy away from the public sphere for fear of the consequences”, continued Grete Brochmann.
She also pointed out that “being a turncoat” is a phrase that resonates deeply in Norwegian history: “One has to be thick-skinned to continue to demonstrate civil courage once the storm starts. War inevitably implies a state of emergency, also outside the war zone. The latitude available for freedom of expression is impacted by the public debate, and nuances can be perceived as inappropriate or dangerous”, stated Grete Brochmann, chair of the Board.
Julie Wilhelmsen (53) is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI). She earned a doctorate in political science and works with Russian domestic and foreign policy, the radicalisation of Islam in Eurasia, and critical security studies. She is an active participant in the public debate on international politics. She serves on the Board of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and the Council for the Fridtjof Nansen Institute. Wilhelmsen has been denied a visa to Russia since 2015.
The prize and the foundation
The Fritt Ord Foundation Prize is the foundation’s highest honour. The prize laureate receives NOK 500 000 and a signed statuette by Nils Aas.
The Fritt Ord Foundation is a private non-profit foundation that aspires to promote freedom of expression, public debate, art and culture. Fritt Ord’s Board of Governors consists of Grete Brochmann (chair of the Board), Bård Vegar Solhjell (deputy chair), Christian Bjelland, Anine Kierulf, Frank Rossavik, Sigrun Slapgard and Sylo Taraku. Knut Olav Åmås is executive director of the Fritt Ord Foundation.
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