Research must benefit society, promote sustainability

Sweden is planning to launch an SEK100 million (US$12 million) research programme on viruses and pandemics, it has been announced, as the government launched its proposed new bill on research and innovation.

The new law will make it a requirement rather than a recommendation that knowledge and competence gained at higher education institutions must benefit society and that universities must promote sustainable development.

In addition to strengthening societal collaboration and internationalisation, the bill will strengthen support for ‘freely initiated’ or basic research.

Minister of Higher Education Matilda Ernkrans and Minister of Enterprise and Innovation Ibrahim Baylan presented the government research bill 2021-24, ‘Research, freedom, future knowledge and innovation for Sweden’, on 17 December.

“The pandemic now challenging us is demonstrating how important research and new knowledge research is for us to be able to handle crises and grand social challenges,” Ernkrans said.

She added that under the proposed law, “universities and university colleges in their work shall promote sustainable development that will lead to present and coming generations being secured a healthy, equal and good environment, economic and social welfare and justice”.

The research bill is also going to protect and strengthen “researchers’ freely initiated research”. In countries such as Poland, Hungary and Turkey this freedom is threatened, and “even in Sweden it needs protection”, Ernkrans told the Swedish Research Councils’ web magazine Curie.

Internationalisation strengthened

The ministers said under the proposed law universities’ international work should be contributing to increased research quality.

“The total international activities at each higher education institution shall both strengthen the quality in higher education and research and also contribute nationally and globally to sustainable development”, as described in the first section of the law.

The research bill for the next four-year period has been prepared over several years involving a large number of stakeholders and institutions sending in comments and proposals. The draft builds on the proposals brought forward by the special committee for the governance of universities (2017-18) and the special investigator for internationalisation (2017-18).

Due to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic for Swedish research and higher education, the government is proposing a special investment in 2021 of SEK500 million (US$60 million) to start to mend the eventual fallbacks.

In addition to this, the government is proposing a significant strengthening of Swedish higher education and research, spending SEK13.65 billion (US$1.6 billion) over four years.

The government is also proposing to strengthen basic funding to individual universities and university colleges – which the vast majority of institutions are asking for in their comments – spending SEK720 million (US$86 million) in 2021, rising to SEK900 million in 2024.

“This is a huge investment – almost nine times more than was invested in the first year of the last research bill,” Ernkrans said.

The research bill says that investment in higher education and research in Sweden is among the highest in the OECD countries, at 3.4% of gross national product, but that this investment perhaps is not used to the same degree as in other countries.

“There are indications that the quality of Swedish research is not developed as positively as research in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands. Sweden therefore has to continue the investments in higher education, research and innovation to develop our society and create more jobs all over the country.”

Five research priorities

Ernkrans said that the research bill opens the way for addressing the great societal challenges in five prioritised areas: climate and environment, health and welfare, digitalisation, democracy, and strengthening of competence.

Within these five prioritised areas there are 48 specified research themes to which funding is allocated.

The research bill has now been sent to parliament and is expected to be discussed and decided upon this April.

Rector of Stockholm University Professor Astrid Söderbergh Widding said: “It is very encouraging that the government has decided to invest extra resources when the private funders are at risk of reducing their investments due to the pandemic, and that the bill is investing significantly in research infrastructure.

“Negotiating the balance between on the one side academic freedom and on the other side the increased prioritised research areas and management by objectives will require great dexterity to function well in practice.”

Agneta Bladh, the government special investigator for internationalisation 2017-18 and former secretary of state (1998-2004) and member of the European Commission High Level Group on Modernisation of Higher Education (2012-14) told University World News: “In these times when nationalist statements are made in many countries, it is positive that the Swedish government recognizes the importance of international collaboration in order to enhance quality of higher education and research.

“The government has accepted the new wording of the Swedish Higher Education Act, as proposed by the internationalisation committee which I chaired. This is very positive and can also have been further supported by the unique cooperation between scholars from all over the world on COVID-19.”

She said the bill has also included her proposal for strengthening collaboration between Swedish agencies and universities in order to promote internationalisation.

“I am still waiting for the government to embrace the national strategy for the coming years, and several other proposals. However, the parts of the national strategy relating to actions by higher education institutions are already starting to be implemented by the higher education institutions themselves.”

Professor Mats Benner, dean at the Lund University School of Economics and Management, told University World News: “This is indeed a very ambitious bill, with lots and lots of proposals – there is something in it for everyone.”

However, he also criticised the bill for being fragmented, with no coherent understanding of how universities, which are the main performer of public research in Sweden, could absorb all of these steering signals and turn them into actionable research with scientific and societal impact.

“The bill has a very strong input orientation – [which assumes] more inputs will yield better outputs. This is yet to be proven,” he said.