Report calls for exit from a ‘research hotel’ model

In 2010 the Swedish Research Council published a report showing that the country’s production of cutting-edge research had fallen below that of Denmark, The Netherlands and Switzerland. This month a new report has called for funding changes, stronger academic leadership, and clear career paths and good conditions for young researchers.

Following the 2010 study, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences commissioned two professors, Gunnar Öquist and Mats Benner, to find out why the country’s breakthrough research was in comparative decline.

Their report, Fostering Breakthrough Research: A comparative study, published on 9 December, offers an extensive analysis.

On the same day Dagens Nyheter, the major Swedish newspaper, published an article titled “Fewer Swedish researchers in international top class”, posing the question: “How can Sweden again become a research nation of the highest rank?”

The report, which also has a dozen analytical contributions from other experts, drew strong reactions from the higher education sector, many not too enthusiastic about its message that “the declining scientific position of Swedish vice-chancellors is a major cause of concern”, that the financing system had eroded, the decision structure at universities did not foster research breakthroughs and the recruitment system was encouraging 'inbreeding'.

However, Ibrahim Baylan, parliamentary vice-chair of education and spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party, said in Dagens Nyheter: “It is obvious that Sweden does not get sufficient value from the resources invested in research.

“In spite of increased resources to research and research education, Sweden has not improved its position as a research nation”.

Baylan thus supported the diagnosis of Öquist and Benner, and he also strongly endorsed one of their main recommendations: “Employ all doctorate students directly as employees and not in temporary positions or with student grants as the praxis is today,” he proposed.

Öquist and Benner produced a thorough analysis, well-documented and argumentative, hammering in their three main messages through empirical comparisons of the proportion of university budgets allocated by basic funding, priority setting at national level and governance of universities.

The problems

The report identifies the main cause of the Swedish research decline as being that “external funding provides the bulk of research funding and thus, with various aims and by different means, exerts relatively strong control over the direction of research”.

Emphasis in government policies is not sufficiently focused on long-term research development supporting individuals with new ideas. The more successful universities in Denmark, The Netherlands and Switzerland have developed “more rigorous quality control as the basis for redistributing resources”.

Furthermore, in Sweden faculty resources are directed more opportunistically, Öquist and Benner claim, in relation to researchers’ capacity to attract external funding rather than being based on an independent appraisal of academic quality.

The authors also argue that Switzerland and The Netherlands are distinguished by having “appropriate tenure-track positions for young researchers, who also receive good funding for their work”.

Advocating solutions

The authors advocate several measures to redress the situation and strengthen the quality of Swedish research by:
  • • Reinforcing national funding of individuals with bold ideas.
  • • Recruiting leaders with strong academic identities and bold visions.
  • • Applying more transparent and responsible university governance structures.
  • • Establishing a tenure track.
  • • Encouraging more international recruitment and counteracting academic ‘inbreeding’.
  • • Changing the research council faculty career funding praxis.
  • • Building a network of Swedish research-intensive universities, as in the UK.
The government is urged to enact reforms that ensure the ratio of in-house to external funding does not fall below 60%-40%: “In Sweden today, universities acting as ‘research hotels’ is a reality”, the authors argue.

The report presents a detailed comparison of development and reforms in higher education from 1990-2012, analysing governance and research quality, and listing a plethora of bad choices that have contributed to the Swedish decline.

Denmark, having experienced the same doubling of doctoral students as Sweden, has had more success in establishing post-doctoral positions – notably through the cross-political parliamentary Globalisation Agreement 2006-12.

Under the agreement, an extraordinary 0.5% of gross national product was invested in higher education and research, amounting to DKK42 Billion (US$9.9 billion), with about half spent on research and university-floor funding expanded by about DKK5 billion annually.

The benchmark exercise with The Netherlands and Switzerland, in particular, demonstrated that universities floor-funding is significantly higher than in Sweden – 70%-80% in The Netherlands and around 80% in Switzerland.

“Universities in Switzerland are generously endowed. The University of Zurich with its 25,000 students and 4,000 employees, for instance, has a budget almost double of that of Sweden’s Lund university,” according to Öquist and Benner.

They also observe that “recruitment [in Switzerland] is predominantly international and the local inbreeding so characteristic of the Nordic countries, seems rare”.

Jenny Larsson, a member of Sveriges Unga Akademi – Young Academy of Sweden – and an associate professor of Baltic languages at Stockholm University, told University World News:

“The report pinpoints several problems at Swedish universities. The establishment of a career system with adequate funding in academic fields is of utmost importance for recruitment.

“And the re-introduction of fully financed positions for professors and lecturers with basic funding is also very important since it allows for long-term [thinking] and perhaps research with greater risks”.