Conversations on research policy

The Expert Group for Studies in Public Economics, or ESO, a think-thank under the Ministry of Finance, gathered the academic and political elite in the Rosenbad government building in Stockholm on August 22, for a conference called “Conversations on Research Policy”.

Minister of Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson gave an overview of the ministry’s work with the White Paper on research, which is due out in two months’ time, drawing up a 10-year plan regarding Swedish research priorities.

In addition to the minister’s keynote, there were three panel discussions covering governance of research and the universities; financing of research and evaluation of research.

Hellmark Knutsson said that Sweden shall continue to be a leading research nation, among the top three in the world measured by investments in research per capita. Effort shall be made to maintain the level of participation of the private sector, which contributes two thirds of total research investments in Sweden, and preferably to increase this level, since the main proportion of today’s research investment is from a few large private companies.

“We are now seeing a stiffening of competition from China, Taiwan and Singapore, which are all investing heavily in research and higher education. We have to remember that Sweden is a small country of 10 million people. We see now that other smaller nations like the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark invest more and more in research, and also that they have a greater research impact than Sweden,” said Hellmark Knutsson.

“There are some structural imbalances in Swedish research where we see that transparency and competition are not open enough when new scientific positions are announced. We have all heard that ‘Sweden is catering for its young sons’ [in research]," she said.

"Higher education institutions will be required to work out more transparent and open recruitment procedures and also to take gender into consideration and this will be a top leadership management responsibility at the universities and colleges,” she said.

Budget allocations

Hellmark Knutsson said that one of the major issues addressed in the White Paper was how to increase the proportion of the basic component in the budget allocations that will allow universities and colleges to decide on expenditure within their own strategic prioritisation, compared with today where a large proportion of the budget is tied up, most notably in matching funding of externally funded research.

Rector of Chalmers University of Technology Professor Stefan Bengtsson said that 70% of the basic component of the budget at Chalmers was tied up in matching funding for externally funded research projects awarded through highly competitive processes.

Hellmark Knutsson spoke about research quality and the need for maintaining investment in research infrastructure. She also said that students today are not participating sufficiently in research processes during their training and labelled this as a specific challenge.

Models of university governance

She delved into the need to find a balance between governing the universities by means of a ‘linear model’ from the top downwards in the organisation versus a ‘collegiate-representative model’.

This issue was further discussed by Professor Kåre Bremer, former rector of Stockholm University, who in 2015 chaired a Swedish commission on higher education leadership, and by Associate Professor Shirin Ahlbäck Öberg of Uppsala University, who is co-author of the book The Threatened University.

Öberg said that there had been a ‘de-collegialisation’ of leadership influence at universities in Sweden since 1977, creating more hierarchical structures in decision-making and involving less academic staff representation on academic boards and other bodies at universities.

She said that collegial decision-making contradicts the more horizontal leadership structures in modern organisations, such as the Google company in the USA for instance, and that such organisations are much better suited to releasing human creativity.

Agneta Bladh, chair of the Swedish Research Council, or VR, raised another issue at the conference: “Let us ask a provocative question: What would happen if all resources now distributed by VR – approximately SEK6 billion (US$714 million) a year – were allocated directly to the universities instead?”

She said that Swedish representation in international research projects would suffer, a quality dimension would disappear, mobility of researchers would suffer and the recruitment of excellent young researchers would be more difficult.

The “Conversations on Research Policy” conference is streamed via this link.