New barometer reflects decline in research spending

When it comes to research and development in proportion to gross domestic product, Sweden is one of the highest spenders in the world. But new data show that spending in relation to GDP has fallen over the past decade, fuelled by a declining contribution by the private business sector, which makes up nearly 70% of total research and development investments.

This is according to the recently launched Swedish Research Council’s Research Barometer, which compares Sweden’s research indicators over time with those of other countries and regions of the world. The report is to be produced biannually.

Project leader for the barometer in the council’s research policy division, Sara Monaco, said the objective is not to deliver a complete picture of Swedish research, “but to focus on those indicators that are giving the most up-to-date picture of Swedish research policy”.

The data has been provided by the Swedish Central Bureau of Statistics and UKÄ, the Swedish Higher Education Authority. International comparisons are taken from the OECD and the Thomson Reuters Web of Science. A summary is available in English.

University research increases

According to the survey, the percentage of research and development or R&D carried out in universities is around 30% – comparable to countries such as Switzerland, Finland, Austria, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Norway.

At the same time research in Swedish universities has increased by 25% over the past decade.

In Sweden, total R&D expenditure in 2013 was SEK125 billion (US$15 billion), SEK34 billion of which came from the public sector. Public spending on R&D increased by 25% over the last decade.

For universities and colleges, 80% of R&D funding comes from government, and from 2001 to 2013 such spending saw a rise of 54%, with medicine, health and the natural sciences receiving the highest increases.

But concerns have been expressed over declines in private funding.

According to Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group, there is a real challenge in attracting substantial volumes of corporate research back to the country.

“The importance of this may not be fully recognised by the academic community, but in fact Sweden has lost huge amounts of private investments in R&D during the 2000s. Sweden needs to be attractive to such investments again,” he said.

Rising numbers of researchers

According to the barometer, another significant area of improvement is the rising numbers of people working in the field of teaching and research. Sweden now has the largest share of researchers at just over 1%, followed by Finland, Denmark and Norway.

As the barometer indicates, in 2015 there were 35,000 people working in the ‘research and teaching staff’ category, an increase of 80% from 2001 to 2015. Around half of these workers are women. Although the proportion of newly graduated doctoral candidates is nearly equal between men and women, 75% of all professors are still men.

The largest category of research staff is made up of doctoral students who number 18,000. This means that 37% of all research in Sweden is performed by doctoral students, most of whom are employed at universities and colleges.

Therefore, what is termed ‘research density’ in Sweden is high. Only Finland and Denmark have more researchers in relation to workforce size. In the Swedish workforce, in the age group 25 to 64 years, 1.4% of people have a doctorate, a percentage that places Sweden in the same rank as Switzerland, Austria and the United States.

Growth in publications, but not highly cited papers

The barometer shows that publications from Swedish universities and colleges also grew by some 8% from 2002 to 2014. However, the number of highly cited papers did not grow in equal proportion, leaving Sweden off the list of top five nations in the world with regard to research citations per capita.

Currently, the top five are: Singapore, Switzerland, the US, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. With regard to publications per 1,000 population, Sweden is number three in the world after Switzerland and Denmark.

Professor Mats Benner of Lund University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology, told University World News that the barometer highlights some of the more pressing issues affecting research.

“Of them, the issue of feeding an ever growing pool of researchers, is becoming increasingly urgent. The resource hike of the last decade or so has been translated primarily into new, and often insecure, positions rather than forming the basis for a sustainable career and recruitment system.”

Lack of research incentives

Benner said that with all academics hunting for “soft money” and few incentives for path-breaking research, it was not surprising that research had been affected.

“The decline in private funding is also a cause for concern, especially as Sweden is seemingly not particularly attractive for inward R&D investments,” he said.

Benner added that the most pressing challenge of all was for universities to become better and more efficient in hiring, promoting and empowering their faculty, and being more proactive in their relationship with funders in setting priorities and devising long-term strategies for growth and expansion.

“The current impasse in the relations between universities and funders needs to be broken,” he said.

Asked by University World News what he saw as the greatest challenges for Swedish research, Göran Melin of the Technopolis Group said it was the re-establishment of a true quality culture throughout the Swedish scientific community.

“Over a long period of time, several decades, a kind of 'good enough' attitude has been prevalent. For too long, and too often, poor quality has been accepted, both in higher education and in research,” he said.