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How can we get more Nobel laureates?

Each October, for a moment, the world of science holds its breath. Who will it be and for what? The Nobel Prize has a special aura, not just for the prize recipients, but also for the patient researcher who refuses to give up. And naturally for their university.
KTH has one Nobel laureate to date; but how can we add to that number?

This week the annual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony will be presented in a different format – just as KTH’s own ceremonies have had to be adapted in this tragical year. KTH gained its first Nobel Prize 50 years ago in the person of Physics Professor Hannes Alfvén.

When it was finally Alfvén’s turn in 1970, neither ranking lists, status nor visibility were on every university’s minds as they are today. And while the stardust from then goes a long way, adding a few more Nobel prizes wouldn’t hurt.

We have many excellent and successful researchers, but when I play with the thought of how we could gain more Nobel laureates among our researchers, I also realize that there are a few things that could foil their chances.

The continuous search for funds  – takes a toll. A greater share of basic grants could ease this situation somewhat. There must be a way to enable talented minds to focus  in peace and quiet.

And it is pure research that is often rewarded – rarely applied research. Gaining breathing space in terms of time and money within a very narrow area can be difficult today. But that’s what’s needed in order to tackle an issue in depth,  without worrying about the merit of the work, or where continued funding will come from.

Added to which, all successful research needs to be seen. It has to be published in leading international journals and made available to other researchers, so that it can be evaluated and discussed. That, in turn, provides the supporting evidence for awards and remuneration.

Other explanations are that research is one part of a researcher’s brief, along with education on a broad front, and cooperation. At many of the most prestigious international universities that KTH is compared with, first cycle education is not part of their brief, since other parts of the system take care of this. Nevertheless, a broad brief is an advantage for KTH, as it shows the trust that Sweden places in higher education and research to deliver societal benefits via all its university graduates.

That research should benefit society is a cornerstone of the Swedish research system and this is naturally laudable. But what happens with research of a more subtle nature, that increases our knowledge and our know-how? Perhaps rather than offering any societal benefits today, it can be a key part of a solution tomorrow.

We must allow room for entirely new ideas that no research financing body has even started to think about. It is in this context that we need to seriously think about how Swedish universities should be able to compete globally with many of the universities that offer fertile soil for their researchers to claim the finest international award of all, namely the Nobel Prize.

If we think this is a quality factor of importance, these are the kinds of questions politicians ought to start discussing. Or is being good enough, good enough for Swedish higher education?

On the sunny side – despite covid-19

I always feel a touch of scepticism when people say think positive and everything will be alright. But when you think about the situation today, I expect it’s more like an obligation. So I give it a try:

SciLifeLab is  celebrating 10 years. This unique and globally-recognised institution attracts researchers from  around the world. The Human Protein Atlas, celebrating 20 years,  has astonished the world and helped a great number of researchers make progress in the hunt for solutions within medicine and health.

When I think about it, there are plenty of pleasing successes you could add to the list:

KTH coordinating a major initiative, called Blue Food, in sustainable seafood is good news, as is the fact that we are involved in a fossil fuel free steel manufacturing process that is unique to Sweden. Or why not the news of the work on the development of the world’s first electric road? (In Swedish)

I am always just as proud and sometimes taken aback by what research in general and research at KTH in particular can achieve.

Also on the sunny side we can naturally include our hardworking teachers and you could say they accomplish amazing deeds in the face of changing circumstances, such as last spring, when the situation was constantly changing, from one day to the next. Not to mention all our other employees, including those that have been on campus every day to ensure everything keeps running, and those that are now working from home. And our students of course who are doing their best to build their knowledge and  and in so doing, be able to help build the future even though it is very definitely not business as usual right now.

There have been plenty of government press conferences in the last few days. Discussions about whether or not face masks should be mandatory and different recommendations that follow on from each other. Like a kind of mantra, they say doing the right thing should be easy enough. But I think it is difficult to understand this patchwork quilt of rules and regulations.

KTH operations are not affected by the governments’ proposal of limiting public meetings to eight people. But we are doing our best to follow these prescriptions, as we understand how they apply to higher education.

But the way I interpret this is that we should ensure that we manage our campus operations in a way that reduces the risk of infection as far as possible.

Our business has been conducted as safely as possible since the start of the autumn term 2020, and we always ensure this. Those who can work from home do so after consultation with their immediate superior and otherwise we will support those who are in place. Our mission, which is aimed at all our students, means ensuring the highest quality of education even in these times. This means that certain practical elements, like laboratory work must be done on campus.

We are currently living in a kind of twilight zone where, on the one hand, many people feel a grinding fatigue and are working with a low intensity crisis awareness. The adrenaline-fuelled power from spring has perhaps been replaced by something else.

On the other hand, our brief of providing research and education means we are an essential business – not only to ensure our students gain a competitive education that is up there with the best globally – but also because our research and its crucial results are vital. For our present and the future that is guaranteed to come – regardless of the coronavirus.

Modern infrastructure a necessity

Just over 15 years ago, several professor colleagues and I successfully applied for money for a mass spectrometer. It has proved to be of tremendous benefit – in this particular case, within polymer materials. This is what good research infrastructure is all about. To both stimulate and generate new and practical research results.

MALDI, Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption Ionization, has now been around for quite some time, but as with even older and in this case, local infrastructure, it can still be used in research and deliver valuable results. But for a university like KTH with experimental and high quality research and education, modern equipment and access to the very latest within infrastructure is also absolutely vital. Rapid developments within technology and knowledge make this urgent.

Having a modern research infrastructure makes KTH more attractive, not only as a place to study but also for teachers and researchers wanting to work here. What’s more, it increases the desire of national and international students to choose KTH as they know it is a place where experimental, cutting-edge research is pursued. Added to which, it is important to increase the price tag for science and technology. This is ultimately a quality issue if students at KTH are to be able to possess solid skills in experimentation when they leave us. It is this first and second cycle education payment (the science and technology price tag) that underwrites the infrastructure of education.

For the sake of Sweden’s competitiveness and innovativeness, a deliberate and perhaps in certain cases even a brave investment in infrastructure, is clearly a must.

This has long been a controversial issue, not least when it comes to financing everything from purchasing, maintenance and development – that has been batted backwards and forwards between different parties where universities have been expected to take greater financial responsibility. And while a national infrastructure can bring in rental income when used by other researchers around the country and the world – such as our PDC Center for High Performance Computing,  the basic grant has been hollowed out and opportunities for external financing reduced.

The fact that it will soon be possible to charge fees for the use of KTH research instruments offers increased scope to keep instruments updated and in good condition and at the same time, opens new avenues to cooperation within education and research.

I  look forward to what Special Commissioner Tobias Krantz intends to propose to the government at the end of May next year. He is going to take a closer look at the organisation, management and financing of our national infrastructure.

As usual, clarity is the key when it comes to the foundation for both stable and innovative operations. So I hope to see a model for our national infrastructure that revolves around know-how, needs and excellence. Which would benefit us all.

Innovation Support Inquiry causes some concern

Almost two weeks ago the comprehensive 360+page Innovation Support Inquiry landed on Swedish Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans’ desk. The Inquiry appears to be ambitious and there are some good proposals. But the question is whether the Head of the Inquiry Alf Karlsson bites off more than he can chew.

The main focus for the task he was given by the government was to review how the innovation system at universities and university colleges works to enable their research to bring benefits and in so doing generate societal benefits and by extension, Swedish competitiveness.

Sweden has a good reputation when it comes to its capacity to innovate and is often ranked in the top three when it comes to national innovation capacity. Recently in the World Economic Forum Innovation Index. The principal task of universities and colleges is education and research, of which cooperation is an integral part. This is worth emphasising. The biggest benefit that emerges from universities and colleges comes courtesy of their graduates whose education brings benefits to society. That ideas are generated by students and researchers in addition to this is naturally excellent. So, despite all this, it is therefore somewhat surprising that such wide-ranging changes Karlsson proposes should be the solution. And while several of the proposals in the Inquiry are good, some are a bit worrying.

Instead of making life easier for today’s holding companies, increased management, control and monitoring is also proposed, where all the universities should be involved to take responsibility for converting their respective research into practical applications. It is good that resources are also being increased for both innovation offices and for the verification of ideas to evaluate and mirror them against the market.

However, I can see a few causes for concern for KTH.

That the holding companies will lose their respective investment briefs and should put forward proposals for good investment initiatives to a national financing company instead, is something I have my doubts about. There is a risk that those universities that are successful within innovation will be forced to take a back seat to broader thinking where all universities are included. Another risk is that both national and international cooperation will be made more difficult as a consequence of the holding companies’ new intended societal briefs where there is a risk that elbow room will become far more cramped.

That the changes are to be paid for by a reallocation of funds, around three percent, from the grants for research and education appears remarkable. Added to which, I am surprised that Karlsson proposes changes for utilisation in the Higher Education Act and the Higher Education Ordinance. Apart from the fact that cooperation (utilisation) is self-evident and already being incorporated in the HEA and HEO in accordance with the STRUT Inquiry, this will also increase the amount of detailed regulation. That is not a good thing.

If academic freedom becomes law

There is a proposal to rewrite the first section of the Swedish Higher Education Act with effect from 1 July next year. In addition to listing lifelong learning as part of university activities, academic freedom will also be entered into the Act. That is a good thing per se, but increased control without increased resources risks sounding better than it is.

Academic freedom not only includes freedom to research, that is already protected by the Act, but also educational freedom. In the government PM, they talk about the concepts of the free search for knowledge and the free dissemination of knowledge. Here, it is important to maintain a clear separation between educational freedom and academic freedom. The free search for knowledge is definitely not the same as educational freedom. Added to which, the concept of freedom of teaching is also used, which further complicates the issue.

Education should, and this is clearly regulated, be comparable throughout the country. A teacher’s freedom in this context is not to entirely autonomously decide what the teaching or course should contain, but rather how teaching can be pursued in terms of methodology and pedagogics. For KTH, which is a degree programme university in the main, there are decisions about programmes and courses that are taken after quality assessment procedures before they are offered to students.

In terms of how education is anchored in research, a teacher has the educational freedom to include research findings. On the other hand,  the Higher Education Ordinance system of qualifications includes requirements on general qualifications and professional qualifications,  which are necessary to ensure comparability within the same type of programme. Educational freedom is different to academic freedom as this ultimately affects a group of individuals, namely the students that take a course or a programme.

Another objection is that as the first section of the Higher Education Act is seen as the university equivalent of other public authority instructions, this should be reviewed for example in annual reports and evaluations. How then should freedom be translated in practice? And how should it then be measured and weighed? It is important that this too should be clarified if the amendment is to become reality next year.

The amendment concerning academic freedom can seem to be an unnecessary reinforcement bearing in mind that what has already been said is safeguarded in the same paragraph that establishes a researcher’s right to research into what they want to do, freely choose their method and thereafter freely publish the results. But on the other hand, it must be said that this can never be sufficiently safeguarded.

 In a discussion that was organised last week by Rifo, a group of MPs and researchers, it was stressed that things like academic freedom, media and civil rights are the first to go when democracy is dismantled. Academic freedom also includes academic responsibility, of for example, taking responsibility for output or training the next generation of researchers.

During my time within the sector, I have seen how university and college activities have become increasingly regulated – sometimes in great detail. This is a worrying development. If expertise, creativity and quality are to go hand in hand, there must be the space and resources to enable this.

However, it is also incredibly important that we use these definitions correctly, continue the debate, without getting bogged down in the undergrowth of interpretations.