Expansion of investment in HE and research proposed

Sweden has announced a further expansion of its already massive investments in higher education and research. A new proposal is to add a further €450 million (US$589 million) to the total budgets, representing an increase of 30% between 2009 and 2016.

Swedish Education Minister Jan Björklund presented the proposals to the Swedish parliament on 11 October as part of a regular revision that takes place every four years. On the same day, Björklund published an article in the Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, in which he touched on the core of the argument for the increases.

“We need more researchers that take greater risks,” he wrote. “We need more scientists... who raise grand and challenging questions, who dare to risk failing, in the search for scientific breakthroughs.”

The move represents a great leap forward in today’s world of stagnating research investments and austerity measures. Allocating 3.46% of its gross national product to research and higher education, Sweden currently ranks fourth internationally, after Israel, Finland and South Korea.

The total investment in research and higher education in 2011 was SEK121 billion (US$18.5 billion). Two-thirds of this comes from the private sector.

There are two key revisions in the new proposals.

The first is a broad strengthening of the basic support to the 37 higher education institutions in Sweden. The second is an increase in the percentage of funding that is allocated on the basis of quality criteria from the current 10% to 20% in 2016.

Today, the formula used for this is based on publication frequency and citation impact, combined with external funding secured for research. In future this will be complemented by an international peer review system to be developed by the Swedish Research Council.

Some of the projects specifically mentioned in the document include the Science for Life Laboratory – SciLifeLab – in the Stockholm region, the European Spallation Source (a super microscope) at Lund and the Swedish contribution to the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor ITER (in 2013 only).

The SciLifeLab is to give Sweden some of the most modern biomedical research laboratories in Europe. It is a national resource centre for large-scale bioscience research including biomedicine, genome and proteome profiling, microbioimaging and bioinformatics.

The specific support to this centre must be seen in the light of Astra Zeneca’s massive pull-out from the region last year, when it moved 1,000 research and development positions out of Sweden from its laboratory headquarters in Södertälje outside Stockholm.

The current proposals also suggest increasing the budget for attracting international guest researchers to Sweden from SEK150 million in 2013 to SEK250 million in 2016.

The proposals have sparked considerable debate.

Kåre Bremer, rector of Stockholm University, said on his blog that one advantage of the new reward system for a greater part of the basic funding to universities is that it will not prejudice the humanities and social sciences, as is the case under the current distribution regime.

Anna Götlund, commenting on behalf of the Swedish Association of University Teachers, stated on the organisation’s website: “The proposed increase in research investment is much higher than we expected, which is of course positive.”

But in an article in Dagens Nyheter, she quoted 2009 Nobel prize winner in chemistry Ada Yonath, who had commented on the principle of research funding based on excellence criteria, saying:

“Look at me. I do not meet any of your criteria. I would not have gotten any position either in Denmark or Sweden. I have been driven by curiosity and passion and that would not have been possible if Israel had not held on to me.”

A final change in the Swedish higher education landscape that Björklund announced is a proposed Stockholm University of Arts, which should be established by merging some or all of the six higher institutions of arts in the Stockholm region, with the ultimate aim of strengthening PhD training in these areas.