The role of academia in our open society

A new week, and things will never be the same again in our daily lives. Yet some things remain constant. After the terrible events in Stockholm on Friday, I am more convinced than ever that academia plays a key role in our open society.

It is always crucial not to depict the world in black and white, but instead to use the manner of analysing and acquiring in-depth knowledge of problems and solutions that is typical in research. But this is even more important when a tragedy occurs such as the one on Drottninggatan, when singular ideologies with contempt for life claim to be in possession of the sole truth. Knowledge and facts represent an important vaccine against perilous and irrational anti-intellectualism, which often seethes with particular contempt for knowledge.

Methodically peeling away, questioning and finally reaching the solid core of knowledge is made possible by starting out with several alternative solutions in mind. As a researcher, seeing things from an external perspective and from several different angles is crucial, as problems, solutions and reality are often complex. This is the basis of both education and research, with knowledge and research results capable of being measured, tested, verified, structured, analysed and repeated.

But academia not only provides knowledge that is conveyed to society and our students, the architects and engineers of the future. We are also to a large extent involved in, with the help of research and innovation, identifying specific solutions for safety and security, urban planning and effective information technology, for example.

As an engine driving development in society, a thriving academic sphere guarantees that false doctrines and irrational denial of the facts will never prevail.

I believe, quite simply, that with knowledge and compassion for our fellow citizens, it will also be possible to cope with tomorrow’s or next week’s reality.

Medieval meetings no longer in fashion

Nothing seems to be able to match a face-to-face meeting with another human being. Exchanging thoughts, ideas and experiences is, of course, necessary – especially in the global and boundless world of research. Physical reality is hard to surpass when it comes to the ability to see how problems, questions and solutions look in practice.

But we need to try to think differently about how often this is reasonable and judicious – in order to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and ensure a sustainable future. One of the three pillars on which the activities of KTH Royal Institute of Technology rest and should be characterised by is sustainable development.

In actual fact, we are still behaving as people did in the Middle Ages – when they travelled around to different seats of learning to meet each other, even if the most common means of transport at that time were slightly different, such as the horse or boat. Despite the fact that, with the help of innovations and new technology, the world has changed in a way that is almost incomprehensible, there is sometimes a great deal of human inertia when it comes to embracing new solutions to replace face-to-face meetings in academic contexts.

It is perhaps the case that being there just because “everyone else is there” is not always a watertight argument for a conference trip involving flights.In such cases, there is no clear right or wrong approach, but it is important to begin to reflect on and question whether there are other ways of travelling and meeting each other. KTH can lead the way in terms of practising what we preach to the greatest extent possible.

The research community can also draw inspiration from the way that students quickly embrace new methods and platforms by seeing the benefit of them regarding the issues of flexibility and individualisation, for example.

The lecture evolved as a format because students could not afford or did not have access to their own books; instead, they gathered together to take notes while the literature was being read out loud. Much has changed in this area.

Through different types of e-learning such as MOOCs and what are known as flipped classrooms, students can follow lectures or take entire courses from home online, or combine this with being present at the seat of learning to take exams and attend seminars.

According to the Swedish Higher Education Authority, just over a quarter of students in Sweden are participating in educational courses and programmes via the internet. The Swedish Higher Education Authority will be drawing up criteria in a European working party that will also enable them to quality-assure e-programmes – something that is obviously very important.

Where KTH is concerned, e-learning is also an important step in the internationalisation process and in ensuring that it is able to compete in the global university market. Vision 2027 states that KTH’s virtual campus should be on a par with the physical one.

Hopefully, increasingly developed and refined technology will make it possible to travel more selectively – without missing out on important encounters.

Upgrade the academic teaching proficiency

The principal tasks of universities and institutes of higher learning are education, research and collaboration. Almost 400,000 students are enrolled at Swedish seats of learning. Education is thus a key task for these institutions. Students invest time and money in their education. Sometimes, however, it feels as if more attention is paid to the task of research than that of education.

In particular, qualification systems are designed with a higher emphasis on the number of articles produced and their impact is given more attention than equivalent criteria associated with teaching development. In general, tenure track systems offer detailed criteria for comparing and assessing qualifications. Unfortunately, the level of accuracy is not always as high when it comes to measuring basic university teaching qualifications and teaching proficiency (Högskolepedagogisk utbildning och pedagogisk meritering som grund för det akademiska lärarskapet (University teacher training and teaching qualifications as a basis for academic teaching development), SUHF 2017).

The university ordinance of 2011 was amended so that it no longer prescribed that university teacher training was necessary to be qualified for employment as a lecturer or associated professor. This has meant that differences have evolved between the way seats of learning manage qualified university teacher training and teaching proficiency. The requirements differ between seats of learning, and in some cases, there is no requirement whatsoever for such teacher training. In many cases, there is also no definition of what teaching proficiency is, which makes it difficult to set criteria against which to make assessments.

A good learning environment means providing adequate conditions for student learning. The university ordinance already states that higher education is based on scientific principles and reliable experience. Academic teaching development is a key component of laying firm foundations for student learning. Being a researcher without having undergone postgraduate studies is something inconceivable for all of us working in higher education. On the other hand, we do not seem to attach the same importance to the teaching staff being prepared for their teaching role.

Qualified university teacher training, along with scholarly qualifications, provide the basis for academic teaching development; this is a quality factor. It is always important that those interacting with students in learning environments have the opportunity to develop skills in their teaching role and are given time to reflect on learning. It is high time that we assessed and acknowledged good teaching. A particularly crucial aspect is that digital developments have changed the face of learning. This requires a great deal in terms of digital competence among teaching staff and their ability to interact with students in various types of learning environments. The Association of Swedish Higher Education’s recommendation on goals for qualified university teacher training ( in Swedish) is a starting point; after that, continuous access to skills development in university teaching is required. In addition, it is necessary to acknowledge positive initiatives in education in the same way as we acknowledge scientific achievements.

Complex role needs clear frames

Research studies involve complex and inspirational work and of course KTH cares about its PhD students and wants them to get the most out of their studies – which is also doubtless what happens in most instances. But I believe it is important to always be prepared to perform analyses so that we can improve things.

The survey of PhD students Doktorandspegeln, produced by UKÄ (the Swedish Higher Education Authority), came out before Christmas. This national survey is the third in a row – the two previous surveys came out 14 and 9 years ago, respectively. The survey makes for interesting reading and shows, in the form of a questionnaire, how Sweden’s PhD students view their lives in a range of different areas.

The vast majority of them, 77 percent of the 4,751 students who responded to the questionnaire, were very satisfied with the quality of the courses. This is, of course, positive, but it emerged that many have experienced deficiencies in other areas. This includes feeling that they are not involved in their workplace (30 percent), or that they do not consider supervision to work effectively. One in four PhD students stated that their research results were used without them being cited as author or originator.

To have the courage to look a little closer at traditions that are specific to certain seats of learning but are no longer relevant. I think in many cases it is a question of leadership, or perhaps rather a lack thereof – when things do not work as they should.

Unfortunately, there is sometimes a tendency towards an old-fashioned and outmoded culture in which PhD students are viewed as lab assistants, or perhaps as apprentices who are to imitate the professor, rather than as resources with thoughts of their own. As a supervisor, your responsibility is not solely for the working environment –you are also a pedagogical leader. Academic leadership includes, as I see it, creating effective and distinct frameworks for PhD students.

While it is important for a student who is also employed to understand what employeeship means. It is complex to be a student and employee at the same time, and our students need to understand that it is the employer who manages and distributes work.

However, it is important to break away from the master-apprentice mindset, because that type of structure is at risk of being reborn. On many occasions, cultures that are less conducive to the desired environment are passed on in this way. The PhD students may gradually in turn become supervisors themselves and, in the worst cases, bring with them a vague and antiquated view of how collaboration with students may look.

 The quality of postgraduate studies is not only important for the PhD students themselves and their future – it is also crucial to the development of knowledge and society. In this area, leadership and employeeship are important in terms of creating positive work environments.

Alumni – inspiring role models

KTH Royal Institute of Technology’s former students are spread far and wide, nationally and internationally. Over the years, many students have obtained their undergraduate or research degree at KTH. There are students now working in the public and private sectors all over the world.

KTH has come to agreements with 13 alumni chapters  located in countries such as Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Indonesia, the United States and China. These associations reflect the international nature of KTH. An alumni association is formed and an agreement is signed between KTH and the association concerning a certain amount of activity per year, e.g. seminars, study visits or other social activities.

The aim of alumni activities at KTH is to develop and foster relationships with our former students. Alumni mean a lot to our organisation; they act as role models and provide inspiration to current students but they are also our friends who give us new perspectives on education, research and collaboration. Alumni also contribute to the global image of KTH, which benefits both incoming and outgoing students and also provides opportunities for new, interesting research collaborations. When former KTH students are active in the world, this raises our profile and can thus affect aspects such as KTH’s ranking in the list of higher educational institutions.

A new alumni association was formed on Thursday 9 March–the KTH UK Alumni Chapter is now up and running. I was privileged enough to be there for the launch. More than 500 former KTH students work in the London area, and the idea is to be able to offer seminars at least twice a year at which researchers from KTH talk about current research. Otherwise, the association envisages a further two meetings, which may be study visits to interesting companies or organisations.

There is huge diversity in what people do after their studies at KTH. I met some former students who had just started their PhD, along with risk capitalists, and even someone who is now an artist.

Alumni spread out around the world represent a major opportunity for current students who, via the alumni, can come into contact with rewarding international projects and degree projects. But the alumni network is also an opportunity for KTH researchers.

I noticed that there was a great desire to know more about what’s going on at KTH at the moment and, in particular, to find out about all the exciting research. So get in touch with KTH Alumni or those in charge of the alumni chapter when you travel to countries where they have been set up.

Time to take the next step

I have sometimes been asked why we focus so intensely on the three mainstays of gender equality, sustainable development and internationalisation. Shouldn’t we be focusing on education, research and leading-edge technological development? And of course we should be –  the latter is the mission of KTH Royal Institute of Technology.

But my vision is for the three mainstays to serve as guides for our mission and for them to characterise KTH’s activities and development as a world-class university of technology.

As regards gender equality, women and men having the same conditions and opportunities to make choices, carve out a career and play an active role in our operations – particularly in the technical sphere – goes without saying for most people. But it’s still not a reality – yet.

We have been working in various ways and taken various initiatives to redress the balance over many years. This has generated results, but – and this is crucial – it does not make the issue less relevant or important today. On the contrary, it’s high time to take further steps.

It’s a question of quality. Quality means making the most of both women’s and men’s knowledge and expertise and their perspectives on technology and engineering. In my opinion, technology is the area that is the most crucial in its significance to humanity and a sustainable future. Gaining new ground and coming up with innovations in this area enables us to ensure we have a good world to live in.

An engineering degree is broad and offers a wealth of opportunities to pursue special interests. It is to the greatest extent a creative area in which women decide not to engage for various reasons. This is a great waste. What KTH needs to do is to make sure that women and men are on an equal footing regarding access to different choices and careers and the ability to follow their dreams into the future.

Looking at KTH’s annual report, it is pleasing to see, for example, that the number of women applicants has increased somewhat, even if there is still a lack of balance in certain programmes.

Of 2,606 new students in engineering (three-year Bachelor or five-year Master’s degrees) or architecture programmes, 34 percent were women and 66 percent men.

If you read the report further, you’ll also see that out of 285 professors, 15 percent are women and 85 percent men.

It’s also nothing new that this bias increases the higher up the hierarchy you go, and various measures are being taken to make the path more accessible for women – for example, a conscious employment strategy has had a positive impact on the gender balance of employees in the faculty.

Of those working in the area known as STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – only 24 percent are women. This bias is a threat to multifaceted societal development and to the young girls who decide not to go into STEM, despite having high grades. In the viral campaign, #WWYS15 the idea is to send a greeting to your 15-year-old self. I would probably say something like: Take a chance and be more daring!

What would you say?

Code of conduct – a good foundation

A code of conduct for the entire research community is one of the proposals in what is called Oredlighetsutredningen, (the Misconduct Inquiry) which was submitted to the government last week. It is a key, vital proposition that has been requested and discussed over a long period of time. A common set of values is a good start to work from for more and extensive discussions in the academic world about what good research is, and how individual researchers and research groups should conform to that standard in their everyday lives.

The Research Council’s (Vetenskapsrådet) report “God forskningssed” from 2011 is the closest thing we currently have to a code of this type. On is a long list of codes, laws, regulations, rules and guidelines relating to research and its ethics. To create a consensus on what constitutes good research is of great importance and, as I see it, an important cornerstone of the academic responsibility, which I have written about before.

Clarity about what applies in the case of responsibility, in addition to concrete proposals for a new independent authority to both manage and make decisions on misconduct cases, will benefit Sweden as a research nation.

Another important aspect is the link between good research and work environment and what conditions may lead to fraud. It is something we at universities must work with and create awareness about. Traditions and culture are passed along between generations of researchers, where older researchers often become role models for the younger ones.

The scramble for funding that can lead to fierce competition and hasty publications that can create a momentum blindness, resulting in a lack of team spirit and fruitful collaborations, is one such example.

But to identify the reasons behind fraud, the investigation also suggests that the area itself should be researched – which also makes sense. Here we need to increase awareness and highlight issues as it touches and hopefully engages people at all levels of an institution. But it is also about the trust research has in the public eye. Increased transparency can facilitate increased visibility for the research community – at a time when accusations of things being ‘blinded’ or obscured become more common.

The Inquiry  proposes letting an agency handle fraud issues rather than the universities themselves, and this appears to be a good solution. The advantages are many – sound expertise and current research can be gathered here and assessments can be legally stronger by avoiding the risk of a conflict of interest between colleagues.

To have a clear definition of research misconduct and a code of conduct would be a very good foundation to build on.

Innovation closely linked to research infrastructure

In recent years, there’s been much talk in Sweden about the need for increased innovation, both in the areas of services and products. Sweden is a strong industrial nation in which significant value is derived from innovation and benefits derived from research.

The National Innovation Council was founded in 2015 with the aim of developing Sweden as an innovative nation and thus increasing the country’s innovativeness.

Sweden is globally regarded as a highly innovative country, ranking second in the world in innovation rankings (behind South Korea) and first in the European rankings. It’s often said that one of the reasons for this is a commitment to excellent academic research, along with the fact that that individuals’ ideas are given the opportunity to develop, thus providing people with strong personal impetus. Despite this, many suggest the pace of innovation is slowing down.

My first meeting as part of the National Innovation Council last week brought me up to speed on how discussions are held on the council and what is currently being discussed, and provided me with a sense that many people regard academia as an engine for producing more innovations in Sweden. Cooperation is a natural part of what KTH has always done. At the same time, academia needs to safeguard its central role in undertaking both basic and applied research.

When producing research through collaboration or co-production, each of the parties involved needs to clearly define what they want to achieve through the joint project. This means the business community must acknowledge its own role; just keeping an eye on the research front waiting for developments isn’t a great way to start. In the same way, researchers shouldn’t engage in the development part of joint projects.

Monday’s meeting was divided into four parts:
– Testbed Sweden
– How authorities can contribute by thinking in new ways
– Innovation across the country
– Initiatives to develop the research system

Each part was of interest to KTH. The last point – Initiatives to develop the research system – is strongly connected to the research-policy bill Cooperative knowledge – addressing social challenges and increasing competition and was, of course, closely linked to the expectations of the academic world. The starting point for the discussion of the third point – Innovation across the country – was innovation and the development of small to medium-sized businesses across the whole nation.

I sometimes struggle to see how the academic world in general and KTH in particular can manage the full width of its duties, given that resources are roughly as large as in the past. The budgetary allocation for education has been gouged away since 1993; more education is being provided for the same money. Certainly, resources for research have increased, but at the same time there are now signals that educational institutions will be required to finance both joint-national and internal research infrastructure, to a higher degree than previously. This, of course, means that a portion of funding goes to financing infrastructure. One cannot refrain from creating modern research infrastructure; it is a prerequisite for excellent research.

Certain conditions need to be place if all educational institutions are to have the same tasks and requirements when it comes to capitalising on research. Teachers and researchers currently struggle to combine academic duties with the demands of being internationally renowned researchers. At the same time, research progress should be capitalised on in different ways. A globally attractive and strong KTH demands greater numbers of highly cited scientific papers as well as for KTH to collaborate closely in and contribute to service and product innovations, both nationally and internationally.

Will KTH and its academic staff be able to manage this with the current resource allocation?

Visibility – a most important mission

Sometimes–it doesn’t happen very often–one can have new and revolutionary insights. That’s when facts, research and extensive knowledge combine to mean that the way we look at the world will never be the same again.

It is fantastic and it is something that happens in both wider and narrower contexts; whether you are in the lab yourself and inspiration strikes, or, in the wider context you are working with a research team and finally make a breakthrough. I think that many, not least in the academic world, can recall a time when a moment of clarity became a matter of course.

And if someone has the ability to reach out and talk about their groundbreaking research, then new discoveries can become a collective eye-opener.

In recent weeks, two outstanding educators and storytellers, if one may call them that–Professor Hans Rosling and the photographer Lennart Nilsson–have passed away. Each in their own way turned things upside down with their performances and discovered new connections: Hans Rosling in the field of global health and Lennart Nilsson in the origins of life.

In days like these, when people seem to be lining up to deny facts and when even scientific facts are under suspicion, it feels very good that both of them were awarded KTH’s great prize.

The citation for the annual prize that has been awarded, with only a few exceptions, every year since 1945, says among other things that it should go to a person who “through the epoch-making discoveries and creation of new values ​​…”.

The list of recipients of the award also partly reflects Sweden’s industrial and technological development over the same period.

As we have been reminded of in the past week, Hans Rosling was able to enthuse an audience in a way that perhaps not many other people could. He was unique.

He showed how research and facts can be understood and how it is possible to reach out research to a diverse audience. It is also inspiring that playfulness and humour need not stand in contrast to weighty factual knowledge.

Increased visibility for the research carried out at KTH is not only part of our mission – it is something that can literally change the world.






The dilemma – democracy and collaboration

I’ve just paid a two-day flying visit to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. This is a land that wants to strengthen its position in international research and education, maybe not the picture we usually have of Saudi Arabia. KAUST has been established with the vision of building a strong international university.

It’s a place that buzzes with the energy and the will to build a world-leading education and research institution. KAUST could almost be considered as a city in its own right; students and staff both academic and administrative staff work, live and have their entire social life in this secluded area.

In seven years KAUST has recruited teachers / researchers from all over the world. In many ways, it could probably be almost considered a dream life for a teacher/researcher.

KAUST is inspired by the American model, in particular Caltech. Education and research are closely linked because it only provides second and third-level education. The master’s course is usually called a research master, which means that students are closely linked to research and are welcome to continue with postgraduate studies.

Two things struck me; firstly, the huge sums that have been ploughed into the latest research infrastructures, among other things, including a supercomputer that was the seventh-most powerful in the world when it was installed.

Newly-recruited faculty members have in many cases been able to design their lab to include everything on their wish list. The other thing is the conditions of employment. A professor is hired on a five-year rolling contract, which means there is a performance evaluation each year. If you pass the assessment this adds a year to your contract, so that if you perform well you are constantly working from a five-year perspective. For this you are given a basic grant that is the same size as the ERC usually is. The pay is high and is tax-free. There’s no lack of money but there are grants that cover approximately 40 per cent of the cost of the degree. Need I mention that KAUST is private and in the beginning had no budget; you could buy everything you wanted.

So, can you ignore that KAUST is in Saudi Arabia? No, you can’t. But within the KAUST campus people are open to dress how they with, and women and men study on equal terms. It’s good that the student mix has very quickly reached 40 per cent women to 60 per cent men. However, I don’t understand why the university has not succeeded in becoming more equal when it comes to faculty recruitment; it’s really bad that only 9 per cent are women.

The question I asked myself is whether it is not so attractive after all for women teachers/researchers to join KAUST in Saudi Arabia. Some professors have come over with spouses who do not work and it feels very conservative. However, there is a mixture of women and men in the administration. We met the person responsible for international student recruitment, a woman from Italy who works at KAUST with her husband. The children of staff go to schools within the university area. People seldom need to leave the area, as everything is here.

I’m faced with the dilemma of this being a university that KTH could have much fruitful collaboration with, while it is in a country where women’s opportunities are severely restricted. Master’s students and doctoral students are given excellent opportunities to develop themselves in their fields. There is interesting research on solar energy underway (as we know the sun shines every day in Saudi Arabia) but there is also a lot of water research work, ranging from desalination to the recycling of water. The campus is located right beside the Red Sea, so there is a lot of climate and marine biology research. KAUST in Saudi Arabia is doing what, among others, Singapore is doing by investing a lot of money in higher education. KAUST’s publication record is strong, and soon enough, we will see it climb in the rankings.

Life outside the campus is a lot less accessible; a woman is expected to be fully covered by an abaya robe whenever she goes outside of the university area. Although our hosts say that they are not as strict when it comes to women wearing headscarves it is a very conservative society. Then it is also difficult to forget the legislation that the country has, including brutal executions and other archaic punishments.

But we are faced with the same dilemma in other parts of the world. The best contribution to social development is through education. Higher education means to be able to influence openness and inclusion. KTH has previously chosen to have a lot of presence in China, Southeast Asia, India and Brazil. There are all countries and areas where both cultural and democratic rights are different than they are in Sweden. We should discuss this issue more so we are clear about our values ​​and our principles for cooperation.

If KTH wants to further strengthen its position in the world it will need to have good relations with a string of universities. To a great extent, co-publishing with excellent researchers around the world increases the impact of KTH’s research. Impressions from different parts of the world enrich and deepen students’ knowledge. But KTH cannot be naive, nor should we be requiring employees to travel to countries where it is not safe. Unfortunately, it is not enough to think only about excellent education and research; we also need to have a sound compass to navigate an increasingly complex world.

KTH is now starting to develop an internationalisation strategy. This will help us when we come to work together in the global arena.