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Government and foundation boosts for research

Sweden’s government is to invest SEK1.6 billion (US$240 million) over the next 10 years in the city of Södertälje, in research and training in medicine and engineering, said Education Minister Jan Björklund last Monday. The next day the Wallenberg Foundation outlined plans to invest a whopping SEK1.7 billion so “Swedish medical research can regain its world leading position”.

Both moves can be seen as a response to the medical mega-company Pfizer bidding in mid-May for a take-over of AstraZeneca, the jewel in the crown of Swedish medical research.

With Jan Björklund at Monday’s press conference were Martin Lundstedt, CEO of the Swedish lorry company Scania, Swedish AstraZeneca head Jan-Olof Jacke – both companies have their headquarters in Södertälje – and Peter Gudmundson, vice-chancellor of KTH, the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm.

KTH will develop 1,200 study places in engineering in Södertälje over the next 10 years, focusing on areas including production engineering and logistics, with the close cooperation of Scandia, AstraZeneca and other industries.

“Sweden is going to remain an industrial nation, and for the Swedish economy, industry means more than ever before,” said Bjørklund, adding that sharpened global competition had introduced a new element.

“We want industrial companies in Sweden to feel that the government is supporting them.”

Hectic activity following bid

This move is part of the hectic activity that followed New York-based Pfizer’s US$50 billion bid for AstraZeneca.

There was a fierce reaction from three Swedish ministers, in an op-ed article in The Wall Street Journal, and nine Swedish rectors called for government intervention, in Dagens Nyheter.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said in a statement that Pfizer’s previous takeover of Swedish medical company Pharmacia in 2003 had reduced the number of employees in Sweden from 4,000 to 500 – even though Pfizer had given guarantees that the Swedish workforce would not be affected.

In The Wall Street Journal article, Minister of Finance Anders Borg, Education Minister Jan Björklund and Minister of Enterprise Annie Lööf wrote: “The Swedish government is worried about the takeover bid for AstraZeneca.”

“AstraZeneca is a major Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company.

“In Sweden, AstraZeneca has approximately 5,900 employees, of whom 2,200 are engaged in research. This represents approximately 25% of the company's total research staff. In the United Kingdom, AstraZeneca has 6,700 employees, of whom 2,600 are in research,” the ministers wrote.

“Furthermore, 30% of AstraZeneca's production is located in Sweden. The company's exports amount to roughly 70% of the pharmaceutical exports from Sweden, and AstraZeneca pays the most corporate tax among all Swedish companies.

“We are worried about Pfizer's semi-hostile takeover process for AstraZeneca, and what the effects would be for Sweden and the UK. The Swedish government has learned to judge companies based on what they do rather than what they say.

“Hence, our main concern is how the deal would affect research and jobs in Europe. The guarantees Pfizer has provided in this respect do not seem to be sufficient.”

Wallenberg Foundation

In an article in Dagens Nyheter, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation’s Göran Sandberg and Peter Wallenberg wrote that while Swedish medical research had broadened in scope, its international impact had declined.

“The Swedish life-science industry is loosing ground internationally. In the wake of Pfizers’ bid for AstraZeneca and the impact this will have on Swedish medical research, we are joining a large number of research institutions that have expressed worries about this development.”

The SEK1.7 billion Wallenberg contribution was to strengthen Swedish medical research – and came over and above an estimated SEK6 billion ‘ordinary’ investment in medical research from the foundation over the next decade to strengthen genetic sequencing research, medical infrastructure including biobanks, and laboratories at universities in Gothenburg, Lund and Umeå.

In a blog Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, described the Wallenberg Foundation’s announcement as “of major importance, not the least for research within the life sciences”.

It would greatly strengthen the government’s investment in SciLifeLab, which was significant for the country’s research universities.

“Together with other universities in Stockholm, Uppsala and across the country we will contribute to the development of SciLifeLab within our areas of expertise.”

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