Photo: Johan Wingborg

Joakim Larsson awarded newly established prize for research communication


Joakim Larsson has been awarded this year’s research communication prize of SEK 100,000 from Örebro University and the Hamrin Foundation. Larsson serves as professor of environmental pharmacology at the University of Gothenburg, heads the Centre for Antibiotic Resistance in Gothenburg, and is in the upper echelon of the list of the world’s most cited researchers produced by the analytics company Clarivate.

The findings of the study in India by Joakim Larsson and his team made world news in 2009. They found that wastewater from pharmaceutical production contained a wide range of drugs, including high levels of antibiotics, and that the drugs were also contaminating the drinking water in the surrounding villages.

“The research and the attention it generated has led to action in many parts of the world. For example, India became the first country in the world to introduce legislation to limit the release of antibiotics,” says Joakim Larsson.

Decision-makers listen

A banana peel. That is how Larsson describes one of his first major efforts to communicate research. The 2009 Associated Press article on the team’s research had an impact, both in India and internationally. India and China are the dominant producers of the substances used in various pharmaceuticals and often supply the major Western pharmaceutical companies.

Joakim Larsson’s research set off a chain of events in which representatives of the financially powerful pharmaceutical industry often argue intensely for their cause.

“In discussions with parties that have strong vested interests, it is easy for them to regard you as a researcher who influences public opinion. Decision-makers often turn to researchers for facts and arguments. That underscores the importance of being careful in communicating what we know, highlighting both the pros and the cons. And what is certain and what is uncertain.”

Important for impact

Larsson regards communication as part of his job as an academic researcher:

For research findings to have an impact on society, communication is often important. “It is rarely enough for researchers to publish in scientific journals to reach decision-makers.”

Researchers may be an expert in their field, but they have a broader mission to the world outside academia, according to Larsson.

“It is not primarily a question of promoting your own research but rather about explaining often complex problem areas. In interviews I do not talk only about my own research but rather about an issue to be addressed–and what conclusions can be drawn from all the relevant research.”

Experience from his own research communication has also given Joakim Larsson a better understanding of research in the social sciences and humanities.

“I started working with philosophers to understand what motivates people and organizations. Even in research communication, it helps to try to understand the unique circumstances of different actors. This often makes it easier to understand why certain arguments are not well received. That way, you may be able to find other ways to move forward.”

Calls for transparency

Joakim Larsson provides an example: Today a patient or doctor still cannot know where the substances in a medicine are manufactured. They can sometimes come from a dirty factory in China or India. One way to increase the pressure on companies to reduce emissions from their subcontractors would be legislation forcing them to disclose their production chains, thereby exposing them to scrutiny. But in industry, transparency is sensitive, and Western companies can be very reluctant to reveal where and by whom their substances are produced.

“It is not just that they do not want to risk revealing dirty production sites and being exposed in the media. They are also reluctant to disclose good subcontractors for purely competitive reasons.”

This makes the contexts complex. In a study published in 2019, Joakim Larsson, together with two philosophy researchers, identified 26 different types of actors who can, in different ways, influence the risks of emissions from the production of pharmaceuticals globally.

Doctors as an important target audience

Politicians are a target audience for research communication.

“Unfortunately, in my view the time is past when politicians acted only because something was ‘right’ and good for society in the long run. Today, it is more a matter of getting votes,” he says.

Larsson highlights another target audience for his research communication: doctors. Speaking at a Swedish medical conference earlier this year, he invited participants to offer their opinions on various measures via their mobile phones. The results showed almost total support for requiring pharmaceutical companies to disclose where and by whom their products are manufactured.

“I then used the figures at a conference a few weeks later with many participants from the pharmaceutical industry, precisely to show the attitude of those who prescribe their products. This can be a way to make the industry realize what could soon be a reality.”

Sweden as a role model

As a result of Larsson’s research, regions in Sweden and Norway also have started to include information on emissions monitoring from manufacturing when procuring medicines for healthcare.

“Though Sweden is a small country, it still plays an important role in the market. We have knowledge at different levels here, and it is also easier to reach out and influence events than in a country like the United States. As a result, we can serve as a role model. Sweden became the first country in the world to ban antibiotics as growth stimulants in animal husbandry in 1986, 20 years before the European Union. Most people in Europe now probably take such a ban for granted.”

Understand motivating forces

Larsson communicates research in various international bodies within the UN system, including the World Health Organization (WHO). Before the G7 meeting in the United Kingdom in 2021, he provided supporting documents for international measures to limit the release of antibiotics into the environment.

An international trade association for antibiotic producers worldwide, the AMR Alliance, came out last year with its own standard to limit its own emissions, something that Larsson has both praised and criticized in discussions.“The pharmaceutical industry is open to rules if they are equal for all–and we will not stop buying medications even if they become slightly more expensive because companies have to take reasonable measures to limit their emissions. But we need to consider complex realities and understand the motivations of those involved to achieve a goal that is in line with the best interests of society.”

Joakim Larsson, Institute of Biomedicine, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg.
Photo: Johan Wingborg
Improve your communication skills with Joakim Larsson:

1. The flow of information is almost infinite, so as a researcher you have to ask yourself how interesting your findings are and for whom. There has to be a target audience, and this determines how you need to communicate to reach them. Most decision-makers do not read scholarly publications.

2. As a researcher, you should always provide a picture with subtle distinctions. You are not an opinion leader or a politician, but a knowledge broker who has to present pros and cons, certainties and uncertainties.

3. When you are interviewed by the media, ask to see the draft to check the facts. Something almost always is misunderstood and risks distorting the message. It is much more difficult to correct misconceptions afterwards once they have spread.