Experts are humans, too: Frederik Waage
In this interview series, we meet four researchers. They are COVID-19 experts and widely used in the media. But they’re perfectly ordinary people, too.
Title: Professor, Doctor of Laws with special tasks in constitutional and administrative law
Areas of research: Public law, the Constitution and the constitutional state
Among other things known from the following media: DR, TV2 NEWS, radio and nationwide dailies. Known for, among other things, this statement during the mink scandal (from ‘Debatten’ on DR2): ‘It is the Prime Minister who gives the order.’. Frederik Waage is the second-most quoted expert on Forskerforum's list of the most popular experts in 2020, where for example Bente Klarlund ranks as no. 15, Svend Brinkmann no. 31 and Eske Willerslev.
Leisure interest(s): all kinds of literature, long-distance running and tickling the ivories ‘at an extremely basic level’
Why are you featured in the media?
The communication task is an important part of holding a professorship. And basically, I think we need to make ourselves available if our assessment is requested. I fully respect the fact that many of my colleagues turn down media requests because making yourself available often takes time away from free research.
However, if TV Avisen (television news) asks for an interview about something within my own subject area I can actually provide an answer to, it would feel kind of arrogant to turn them down. After all, it’s TV Avisen!
On the other hand, it’s arguable whether it makes sense to accept an interview where you only get to make a single reply in a news feature, even though you may find yourself in distinguished company. Still, the interview in the newspaper or on TV is just the tip of the iceberg. The short clips always reflect extensive background info discussions with the journalist, and here you help to ensure the quality of news stories, which is also important. In fact, I think that the time spent in the media is usually well spent.
You sometimes get to know interesting stories before they break, and every now and then you get insight into issues and material that you would not otherwise have access to as a researcher.
How do you relate to ongoing discussions, e.g. on social media?
The societal debate on Facebook and Twitter is all too often unpleasant, while there are more orderly conditions on Linkedin. As a legal researcher, you typically fly under the radar because the unpleasant comments are directed at the object you are commenting on. However, I clearly feel that the more political a legal issue is, the more things focus on the researcher.
The interview in the newspaper or on TV is just the tip of the iceberg. The short clips always reflect extensive background info discussions with the journalist, and here you help to ensure the quality of news stories, which is also important.
What responsibility do you feel for the way your statements are used?
I relatively often find that quotes I have approved are shortened so that they appear more acute than you as a lawyer would like them to be. If you raise a question in an article, it also often happens that the journalist chooses a semi-dramatic headline such as ‘Law Professor Has No Doubts’ or ‘Law Professor Wonders out Loud’.
When you are quoted in the media, you are in the hands of the journalists. You are responsible for what you are being quoted for, but you are not responsible for the context. That’s important to keep in mind.
What do you do when you want to disconnect from the COVID-19 media exposure?
I used to run marathons. And I wish I could say I go for a run. These times – not least the home schooling we’ve seen in recent weeks and a shifted work rhythm – has challenged my own contribution to public health. But I’ll be back with a vengeance here in 2021.
When it’s nice and quiet at home, I read every conceivable kind of literature. My e-book reader is probably my favourite purchase of all time. You can’t read novels and history books on an iPhone, but it works fine on a Kindle. Your eyes get tired in a good way, just like when you’re reading a physical book.
In addition to escaping into the literature, I dabble at playing the piano at a very, very basic level.
If you had to come up with one piece of good advice for others who want to take on the role of an expert, what would it be?
Always ask for your quotes for a quick review and approval – even if the journalists are busy, because they always are. It gives you control over your own words and it raises the quality every time.
In a democracy, a researcher should also be able to be a member of a political party. But I’m quite happy with complete neutrality.
How has it affected you that your role as an expert became central during the mink scandal and that your statements have been used politically?
My involvement in the mink scandal has meant that I chose to resign from a political party of which I have been a member since my student years. In a democracy, a researcher should also be able to be a member of a political party. But I’m quite happy with complete neutrality. At least as long as I hold this position.
In your opinion, what will it take for us to have a better collective conversation about COVID-19?
We must have the greatest possible openness about political decisions. The expert group's report on the handling of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 is in many ways a milestone for bringing the administration to public notice and also a good example of how social science researchers can contribute to ensuring greater openness and transparency.
When it comes to the contribution to health science, one could wish for a more nuanced academic debate on the pandemic, vaccine strategy and the consequences of the lockdown.
We need even more researchers like Christine Stabell Benn who can present counter-perceptions and, using science as a compass, challenge the established narratives in society.