Shock as government axes funding for SDGs-related research

Senior academics and researchers have reacted with shock and dismay at the Swedish government’s abrupt decision to axe funding for Swedish Research Council grants for development research on challenges linked to achieving the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Katarina Bjelke, director general of the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet or VR), said the objective of the grants was to “strengthen Swedish research of the highest quality with particular relevance to the fight against poverty and for sustainable development in low-income countries”.

The government decision to cut the funding was taken on 22 June and on 27 June the Swedish Research Council issued a statement saying the cuts would take place with immediate effect, cancelling all applications submitted in 2023 and the peer review process for this year’s call.

The Swedish Research Council was due to distribute SEK195 million (US$18 million) in 2023, but all new payments, amounting to 46% of this year’s funds, have been halted.

Leading researchers have described the decision as “outrageous and appalling”.

The decision prompted an uproar in Swedish academia, with more than 600 academics signing an op-ed article in Aftonbladet on 30 June, opposing the cuts and the lack of consultation over them.

“The decision was taken without a public debate and the government did not initially give any explanation of the decision,” they said.

The development research grant funding will be reduced each year and phased out altogether by the end of 2026.

The decision comes at a time when research funding’s share of Sweden’s overall development aid budget has been cut from 2% to 1%, a reduction from SEK960 million to SEK440 million in absolute terms.

Swedish research funding for development research in the European Union programme EDCTP (the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership) for international research and the World Health Organization programme for reproductive health HRP (Human Reproduction Programme) will also be reduced significantly.

Taken together, these various cuts will seriously dent Sweden’s reputation as a leading supporter globally of development work to aid poor countries.

The decision to cut the Swedish Research Council funding was taken by Minister of Foreign Affairs Tobias Billström. His conservative Moderate Party is part of a right-wing minority government coalition which, to pass legislation, relies on support from the Sweden Democrats, a populist right-wing party with radical nativist roots that has been critical of international development spending.

In a statement, the Swedish Research Council clarified that researchers who already have ongoing projects in development research are not affected by this decision and can continue their research until the end of their grant periods.

But applications for research funding submitted to the calls within development research (project grant, starting grant, international postdoc and network grant Swedish Research Links) will not be granted funding.

The Swedish Research Council has been funding grants in development research since 2013, using targeted funds from the government’s development aid budget.

Katarina Bjelke urged researchers in development research to apply for funding next year “within the framework for our other calls”.

Government priority is aid for Ukraine

Defending the decision, the Minister for International Development Cooperation and Foreign Trade Johan Forssell said the government has to channel development aid funding where it matters the most.

“The background is that we have a war in Europe, with enormous humanitarian need in Ukraine and a great need to rebuild Ukraine, which we will have to do for many years. Then we have to change the direction of development aid,” Forssell told Dagens Nyheter.

But Fredrik Söderbaum, professor in peace and development research at the University of Gothenburg and chair of the Swedish Development Research Network, told University World News: “The government’s decision to suddenly terminate funding to Swedish development research is outrageous and appalling in at least three respects.

“First, the cancellation of an ongoing review process is a shameless disrespect to several hundred applicants, whose work is now worthless.

“Second, the cut illustrates the government’s ongoing attack on science and knowledge in general and that which is of particular relevance for developing countries in particular.

“Third, the decision forms part of the government’s ongoing reform agenda of Swedish foreign development cooperation, which simply spells national egoism, new public management and irrelevance.”

Tobias Hübinette, researcher at Karlstad University and formerly a researcher at the Multicultural Centre near Stockholm, told University World News: “The current government has decided, firstly, to demote Sweden as the world’s biggest donor and foreign aid country per head from having been so since the 1960s, and, secondly, to defund Sweden’s donor and foreign aid activities going to the Global South or non-Western countries.”

Academics seek to overturn the decision

The 600 academics writing in the Aftonbladet article explained why developmental research is important, both for Sweden and for collaborating countries.

“Developmental research is important because it creates knowledge on sustainable development and the fight against poverty.

“It is building on insights from different academic areas to give answers to important questions like how to build a lasting peace in conflict-prone areas, how to make food production climate supporting, how to contribute to fighting illnesses and multi-resistant bacteria and viruses, handling pandemics, supporting education, strengthening human rights, democracy [and] good governance and contributing to gender equality.”

The 600 academics are urging the government to give the funds that have been cut back to developmental research, and that reforms for revising the research support system be discussed with stakeholders at universities, research councils and international collaborative partners.

They called for a strengthening of research funding agencies to support research collaboration with researchers in low-income countries.

Research landscape ‘altered’

Writing about the Swedish Research Council cuts on SLU’s Global Blog, the blog page of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), Paul Egan and Sara Gräslund wrote: “Loss of this vital funding stream for Swedish research comes at a time when other opportunities for international research cooperation have also radically changed.”

They said that since 2022 this has included the pause of Minor Field Studies for Swedish undergraduate students, indefinite suspension of the Linnaeus-Palme programme for teacher-student exchange, and most significantly, the 54% decrease in the research cooperation budget of SIDA (the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency).

“Within the latter, the partnerships where Swedish researchers serve as supervisors and partners have contributed significantly to strengthening Swedish researchers’ networks and understanding of global challenges,” they said.

“Together, this combination of changes has significantly altered the landscape of possibilities for Swedish research to tackle the global challenges the world faces today – and especially so for young Swedish researchers.”

They said past funding for Swedish development research – from 2013 through the Swedish Research Council and earlier through SIDA/SAREC (the Swedish Agency for Research Cooperation with Developing Countries) – has “often led to groundbreaking knowledge with extensive scientific and policy impact. Such knowledge has also been widely used, for example by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and practitioner agencies”.

Bladh criticises ‘very sudden termination’

Dr Agneta Bladh, immediate past chair of the Swedish Research Council and former state secretary in the Swedish Ministry of Education and Research, told University World News: “The very sudden termination of funding of development research via the Swedish Research Council is yet another very rapidly decided intervention from the Swedish government towards Swedish academia.”

The first one was about a shorter mandate period for university boards as the minister wanted to secure competence in security issues among the board members. This decision was proposed to universities just a couple of days before the government decision, although there had been proposals for new board members available for several months.

She said the termination of development research funds was decided by another minister, with the same lack of consultation with the higher education sector.

She said the two decisions have revealed a “disrespect to both university leadership and researchers”.

“The current Swedish government does not seem to appreciate a trustful relationship with the universities. Even though there is a need for saving funding for other purposes than higher education, the government could have a dialogue with the sector before its decision in order to explain its action.”

International reputation at risk

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now acting secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News: “Over generations Sweden has built an admirable international reputation for being at the very forefront of development research and global engagement. In areas like sexual and reproductive health and rights and antimicrobial resistance Sweden has been a true role model.

“Now – all of a sudden, and without consultation with relevant stakeholders – the Swedish government has decided to slash funding of development research through the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet).

“This follows close on the heels of a previous decision to reduce research funding through SIDA. Words like ‘shock’ should be used sparingly and with care, but in this case, I could safely say that the decision came as a shock to the research community and not least to the scientists that had already invested time and effort in submitting applications to the [Swedish] Research Council in the belief that funding would be available.

“The decision – abrupt, unforeseen and without credible motivation – is exactly the kind of decision that erodes excellent research, which requires stability and predictability in order to thrive and survive.

“In Sweden the gap between reality and rhetoric is growing by the day: how can Sweden uphold and develop its image as a ‘knowledge society’ when the basic principles of research funding are undermined? Words like ‘arrogant’ and ‘disrespectful’ have been used to characterise the government´s decision and I subscribe to both.”

Dialogue with stakeholders needed

Ottersen said it was not too late to rescind the decisions made. He suggested that a dialogue be established between the government and relevant stakeholders: Swedish academia, but also the Global South and international institutions and foundations that for years have counted on the support of Sweden for fostering international development.

“Global challenges require global solutions, and development research is then centre stage. If we were ever in doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated our interconnectedness and the need to collaborate internationally. The government’s decision negates this simple fact.

“I never thought I would need to remind the Swedish government of this, but now is the time to do so: attacks on academic freedom signal an erosion of democracy. Sweden is still near the top of the list of the Economist Democracy Index. [But] for how long?”