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Rector: »What is the opposite of inflation? It is university innovation«

Commemoration 2022 — Rector Henrik Wegener's speech from the Commemoration ceremony 2022 was marked by the present, bleak, world situation, and the knowledge that the university's experts can offer in times of crisis.

Your Majesty. The Board. Colleagues. Students. Dear Friends of the University of Copenhagen.

The cows have stopped drinking from the river.
The cats don’t eat the dead mice.
The vegetable beds have gone blue – and the rats are red.
The silence in the absence of insects.
And the worms – these brainless creatures – understood that something was wrong
and dug down deep into the ground.

This gloomy documentation of animal life is freely adapted from ‘Prayer for Chernobyl’. Svetlana Alexievich’s book on the nuclear accident in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in 1986. The author and dissident, who received the Sonning Prize here in this room five months before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In her acceptance speech, she had the courage to state: ‘Stalin had returned.’

Back then in ’86, the Kremlin ordered a total media blackout. Telephone plugs were pulled out. The news agency TASS suddenly stopped. The firemen reckoned it was just a normal fire. And on the 1st of May – only a few days after the leak – there were throngs of people and parades in Kiev – 120 km away. I guess there are a lot of people in this room from my generation. We are like ghosts — long contaminated by the atmosphere of the Cold War.

Every TV news programme is like watching one long rerun from the 70s.

Every TV news programme is like watching one long rerun from the 70s.  A dictator is entrenched behind an oversized desk, armed with push-button phones and fax machines. Young Russian men are commanded to take part in a deadly and crazy mission. For the first time, a six-kilometre long queue of cars outside the small town of Hvalsø west of Copenhagen, when a sawmill announced the sale of firewood. On Rønne harbour on the island of Bornholm, a diesel generator sputters after another cable breakage in the Baltic. The Danish Energy Agency warns of blackouts in Denmark.

And inflation – inflation that eats up household budgets like a burrowing woodworm.

Add to these all the crises that can be overlooked next to the others. The climate crisis. A deluge in Pakistan transforms a third of the country into a giant lake. In the main arteries of European civilization, the Rhine and the Danube, ‘hunger stones’ appear on dried out riverbeds. Hydrological landmarks from the past with fateful inscriptions about the future: “Wenn du mich siehst, dann weine”.

What is the answer to all these crises which have apparently synchronized themselves to step out on to the world stage as villains at exactly the same time?

One of the answers has been: A political agreement for 2 per cent for Danish defence with a military buildup and a stronger emergency preparation.

But Denmark does not just need hard power to deter enemies. We also need soft power to attract friends. Conversations between researchers and students across borders – science diplomacy – is one road to peace and security. And the university also has an emergency response. It has no armoured plating and it does not dig latrines.  But it thinks the unthinkable and works out what no one thinks will happen.

Just take last year as an example.

Denmark does not just need hard power to deter enemies. We also need soft power to attract friends.

The Danish virologist Allan Randrup Thomsen had hardly left the screens. Public health professor Flemming Konradsen had barely left the TV studio with an urgent appeal for a global vaccine roll-out. Before the university’s new teams of experts moved in. Experts in cyber-war, propaganda, international law, food economics, and also Russian literature to decode Putin’s rationality or lack of it.

The university can see how crises fit together with each other like Babuschka dolls, one inside the other. The river barges on the Rhine running aground laden with coal and causing a fossil fuel supply crisis. Droughts and floods that send waves of people across the Mediterranean. So yes – climate research is also security policy.

You just tell me: What is the opposite of inflation?

It is university innovation.

Inflation is when ‘a lot’ turns into ‘a little’. Innovation is when ‘a little’ turns into ‘a lot’. Take a 4,000-year-old lock of hair, put its genes into a computer and presto! The history of the world has been changed.

Take the otherwise unnoticed horse bean, packed with horse power in the protein, remove the natural toxins and presto! … we have sustainable food products for 400 million people in Africa and Asia. Or take the smallest parts of an atom, build a quantum computer, and presto! there are no limits to what you can calculate.

Inflation is when ‘a lot’ turns into ‘a little’. Innovation is when ‘a little’ turns into ‘a lot’.

Presto and presto!

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Just ask the researchers behind the lock of hair and the horse bean. They didn’t fix all the research in an afternoon.

For science you need time, faith and patience.

10-15 years ago, only insiders knew there was something called quantum research at UCPH. But thanks to time, faith and patience, UCPH has turned itself into a frontrunner in the race to construct the world’s first flawless quantum computer.

We live in a time where a 70-year-old man sits behind a huge desk with push-button phones – and might press the wrong buttons. But perhaps this image of the totalitarian state is outdated. As some of these autocrats’ desks are equipped with the latest technology. Technology that can be used for both virtuous and less virtuous purposes.

The arms race is a knowledge race. And the escalation not only takes place at the barracks, but also on campus. Just take the Leiden ranking of the world’s 100 best universities. And take a ranking of freedom in the world’s countries from Freedom House. Put the two lists together – and what does the result show?

Ten years ago, 97 of the 100 best universities were from the so-called ‘free countries’. Today, only 67 of the top 100 universities are from free countries. 33 universities are in countries that are lacking in democracy and academic freedoms.

How should our researchers act in this new world disorder? Researchers who for decades have been told that they need to be better at sharing knowledge. Unfortunately, the time has come for us to withdraw a bit. We can’t invite anyone into the lab. We might have to live with something apart from time, faith and patience: Restraint.

***

Crisis, crisis and crisis. It is enough for you to almost have a crisis yourself over all these crises. But fortunately, I still have a high-minded item to present to you.

In 1984, Niels K. Jerne was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. But since then we have endured a 38 year drought of Nobel prizes at the University of Copenhagen, and this had set off a minor crisis in our own self-perception.

But now we’ve got one in chemistry!

Chair of the Board Merete has already praised Morten’s accomplishments – and we’re going to hear a celebratory lecture in a minute. But I can’t help but add to the well-deserved tribute.

What was Nike Air without Michael Jordan? What was Hummel without the Danish national soccer team? What is the University of Copenhagen sweatshirt without Morten Meldal?  Just ask the UCPH web shop – which is in the middle of its own supply crisis.

Morten is an unusually good role model for the entire University of Copenhagen. And I don’t just say that because Morten is innovative in men’s fashion. What was Nike Air without Michael Jordan? What was Hummel without the Danish national soccer team? What is the University of Copenhagen sweatshirt without Morten Meldal?  Just ask the UCPH web shop – which is in the middle of its own supply crisis. Morten is a role model because he has showed that the university is not an either-or, but a both-and. Just call it a kind of click chemistry that makes the university’s lego bricks click together.

Morten is both a researcher and a teacher. He has done research with time, faith and patience. In fact, Morten luckily had time to investigate an unexpected test result, and not throw away his option for the Nobel Prize. And he is, at the same time, behind a number of patents and new companies. Morten’s major discovery within click chemistry took place 22 years ago, and researchers and companies are still digging for gold as a result of this breakthrough. Just ask the pharmaceutical industry.

Morten has worked with colleagues abroad. And I’m absolutely certain that this global mindset benefits Denmark. We have found a gift that symbolises your laudable positions on research and education. Positions which you have used your fame to get coverage of in the media.

– That Nobel Prize scientists also have to teach.
– That we need to foster new generations’ interest in chemistry and science.
– That we need to open our doors to more international students.

We know that you are very fond of your apple trees at home in your garden. So we got some help from the UCPH apple tree experts – Lasse Lose and Charlotte Riis from the orchard in Taastrup. They have found a so-called family tree, which already contains four varieties, including, of course, ‘Discovery’. They will then take a branch from one of Morten’s own apple trees and graft it on to the family tree, just before the apple juices turn up in March. Grafting is probably the apple trees’ version of click chemistry. The idea is that this Morten Meldal apple tree is for the entire university. So we will plant it in some appropriate location on campus.

Just like research, it is not certain that it will bear fruit the first few years. But if we ensure good growth conditions — time, faith and patience – it will probably grow and give something back, year after year. And every year, around the 5th of October — the day you got the Nobel Prize — we will pick the apples and celebrate the UCPH version of St. Martin’s Eve, the Danish Morten’s Aften with apple pie.

Thank you.

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