Trust has to be maintained

Trust in researchers and research is still high in Sweden. That’s clear from the results of the yearly public survey of research, the VA Barometer; even if the result is somewhat affected by the Macchiarini scandal.

That gives us hope, and is comforting in times when there is resistance to facts and even a denial of facts. Sweden has a tradition of social structure and development that is based on trust in knowledge; and that knowledge has been behind Sweden’s journey from a poor to a rich country. If an error is made within research it will affect this trust and it is important to remember that trust, just like physical exercise, is something you have to work on to maintain.

In the long run you cannot offer broad research that is based on only old merits. It is in the interaction between research, reflection and critical thinking that the results should be scrutinised in order to eventually do some good for society. But nothing can be taken for granted here without help from the researchers to maintain trust at several levels. We must keep arguing that research is about proposing problems and balancing one side against the other, and that there are very rarely simple solutions to complicated problems. As researchers here, an important part of our assignment is the task of making research accessible, visible and comprehensible by making our findings available and, when needed, helping with the analysis of the research. In this way, we have a foundation for continued research and we can help to allay suspicions that things are being hidden or are unclear.

One of the many questions that were asked in the VA Barometer survey was to what extent politicians consider relevant research when it comes to their decision-making. Of the 1000 people that were asked (in a statistically-reliable selection), 46 percent thought politicians did so too seldom. The question this begs is whether we should be worried that politicians are isolating themselves and are choosing the path of populism instead?

Probably not. Maybe the politicians need to be clearer about invoking the particular research that informed their decision. Perhaps policies that try to be like research and consider one side and then the other could be viewed as poor decision-making. Of course, one way for researchers at KTH to be visible is to pursue teaching. Dealing with students that are eager to learn and argue in their reasoning helps researchers become clearer. The combination of combining teaching and research is especially crucial at a university whose mission is both to educate and to research.

The autumn semester is coming to an end, and, after only six weeks as President of KTH, I want to thank for your trust and your hard work.

I am looking forward to 2017, to the possibility of KTH’s successful research making a contribution to the development of society, and to us making that research as widely known as possible.

Working environment crucial in academia

As one of Scandinavia’s leading technical universities, KTH’s work in education and research is based on internationalisation, gender equality and sustainable development, as I have previously mentioned. These aspects will, wherever relevant and whenever possible, permeate the way we do business and be a part of everything we do, from the ideas we have to the decisions we make and the action we take. But to be able to take the Royal Institute of Technology to the next level means a good working environment that is crucial for students, researchers, teachers and administrators alike.

Last week, Aftonbladet newspaper wrote a series of articles on how Swedish municipalities and agencies are spending money on travel, conferences, parties and entertainment. In broad terms, the newspaper lumped everything together to give a total sum of 44.5 million kronor. It may appear as if KTH is spending an awful lot of money on these things, though that is not the case for a workplace that has approximately 5,200 employees.

But a study of this kind is good to open people’s eyes as to how important it is to have clear, accessible guidance for entertainment expenses–so they can be properly monitored and accounted for. Everyone working at KTH should know these guidelines. It is actually reassuring to know where the limits are, so that we can focus on our mission. Here it is worth discussing or thinking about, for example, whether it is really necessary to serve alcohol at conferences. Even if it is just one to two glasses of wine, it’s about the guidelines, which states that events like this should be in moderation. Alcohol is often a major item in this context. We’re still there to work and for those who have problems with alcohol, it can be difficult to handle the situation. Or, what do you think? I welcome your ideas and thoughts on this subject.

When it comes to things like massage or skiing, to name a couple of things that are done in free time during a conference, you should pay for these things yourself. Here it is important that employees have to reconsider their limits and standards for what is reasonable and justifiable. But–and this is important; skills development is a must and always a good thing for KTH as a whole and for the individual. Conferences are an important element in the business for those who need new thinking, to exchange experiences and ideas outside of KTH–in Sweden and abroad.

Of course some entertainment should be included and should be a natural part of our business, especially when it comes to our interaction with industry and society, both regionally and globally; but it needs to be in moderation. And this is everyone’s responsibility; it is never just one person’s fault when the organisation around it fails.

It is extremely important that we have a working atmosphere that emanates from a clearly-defined culture. It is often said that these things are part of the fabric of the place itself. That’s not the case, of course–but it is the about the people. This means, among other things, that while conflicts are inherited, we also inherit the possibilities to solve and change things for the better.

Within the academy there are a number of special conditions, such as academic freedom and its counterpart responsibility, which are of importance for the working climate. https://www.kth.se/blogs/president/2016/11/no-freedom-without-responsibility/

Competition for research funding and publications is another aspect to consider and discuss. Then it is important to remember that there is a lot of successful research with the team spirit that has fulfilled its importance built on that teamwork and on a respect for each other’s skills.

A good working environment is the foundation of a good atmosphere and a healthy culture at work–then we can concentrate on doing what we do best.

The government bill is good, but it´s not enough

The new government research bill was presented last week: (http://www.regeringen.se/rattsdokument/proposition/2016/11/prop.-20161750/ – in Swedish)
We can see straight away from the title (‘A knowledge coalition – to meet society’s challenges and to become more competitive’) that the bill’s underlying message is of knowledge being acquired by cooperation. That is good; there are a number of societal challenges which by their very nature mean several different approaches are needed. At the same time, this bill states that one should protect free research, and it might be a bit challenging to work on all the priority areas that are mentioned: climate and sustainability, health and increased digitalisation are just three of those included. The bill also states how the new 2.8 billion kronor in funding will be used to strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness when it comes to research and innovation.
The bill does say that the distribution of money to different research groups (VR, Formas, Vinnova and others) will continue, but I would like it to be more courageous. To continue strengthening the influence of external financiers over academic institutions is not good for Swedish research. Why not try out the model of providing even more substantial increases in research funding? The development of research hotels has been going on for several years. The reason that this continues is that many universities depend to a large extent on research funding from external finance. When a majority of the resources for research is ‘owned’ by the teacher/researcher, the hands of the president and the management of the university are virtually tied when it comes to strategic planning of the research.

Swedish research still stands up well internationally. In contrast, the influence and citation of Swedish research has stayed at the same (albeit) high level, while in other parts of the world it is accelerating. It is this the government now wants to change.

The bill proposes a total of 2.8 billion kronor of supposedly new money to be added to the 38 billion kronor that is already part of the allocated resources for PhD education and research. It is positive that quality and equality are such important parts of the bill. At the same time though, it is of some concern that the universities are expected to take a bigger responsibility for the research infrastructure. Having to prioritise the infrastructural side of things could affect the focus on strategic planning.
The government has also announced that it will take a fresh look at the resource allocation for elementary and advanced education, starting in spring 2017, although that won’t affect the budget allocation until 2020. In such a bill one has to consider the different requirements of the various areas of education, for example that technological education is dependent on resources to be able to maintain a functioning infrastructure.

It is clear from the bill that the government expects the conditions for the institutions’ strategic planning to be strengthened by increasing basic funding, although we are not told how the distribution of these grants will be made. In the proposed budgets for 2017 to 2020, a total of 1.3 billion kronor is allocated for research and postgraduate studies. This translates to a total of 500 million kronor for 2018, 250 million kronor for 2019 and 550 million kronor for 2020. In order to bring in the best international talent to Swedish education and research, attractive conditions are needed. But the academic strength of a university does not only consist of so-called ‘young researchers’. There is also reason to offer attractive deals to those who have long since finished their doctorates. Unfortunately the pendulum swings quickly, and sometimes the most senior researchers are prioritised, which makes the renewal of the faculty more difficult, and sometimes, like now, younger researchers are prioritised.

There is information about how to maintain and keep up an excellent education and research environment here: (https://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/research_sites/cihe/pubs/Altbach_Salmi_2011_The_Road_to_Academic_Excellence.pdf ).

One prerequisite is the ability to recruit and develop good teachers/researchers. This is closely related to being able to offer an attractive recruitment package. Successful universities in Asia are successful precisely because they have resources to offer. Access to funding makes it possible to maintain a good balance between younger and more established researchers to create top laboratories with the best equipment. Having a lot of resources makes it possible for the president and management of the university to do some strong strategic planning and offer talents from Sweden and the rest of the world good terms. I wish that the writers of research bills would glance at academic evidence on how excellent education and research areas are created.
If so, Swedish research would be more valued in the world.

Long-awaited renewal of resource allocation system

A few days ago, the Minister for Higher Education and Research, Helene Hellmark Knutsson, announced that in 2017 the government will appoint a commission with the mandate of proposing a new system of governance and resource allocation: (http://www.regeringen.se/debattartiklar/2016/11/pengar-till-hogskolorna-ska-ses-over/. This is welcome news. The current system dates back to 1993 and has not kept up with inflation.

The undergraduate grant, based on the allocation of full-time students (FTE) and annual performance (HPR), is probably the most debated aspect. Resources are assigned to the institution when the student enrolls. When the student performs and achieves points as expected in their courses, the HPR payment is triggered. This means that if the student does not perform as expected, i.e. obtaining 60 credits a year, the university, and thus the course, does not get reimbursed for the costs that have been incurred.

One argument is that teachers are now forced to approve students’ credits for economic reasons. However, there is not enough concrete evidence to suggest that education standards are decreasing because the students are not being approved at the required level. Nevertheless, this so-called truth appears regularly in newspapers. SFS, the Swedish National Union of Students, welcomes a government investigation and, among other things, calls for the replacement of the current performance-based system with a participatory system to remedy this situation: http://www.sfs.se/blogg/sfs-valkomnar-utredning-om-resurstilldelningssystemet (Swedish only).

There is a further need for a new resource system for training that relates to the students of the future; one that goes beyond the previous way of only following courses and not always complying with the examinations. The student of the future may put together a portfolio of courses which consist of Massive Open Online (mooc) courses, distance learning courses or even a traditional course on campus anywhere in the world. A new system needs to take this into account.

Another issue is price tag per subject, where the humanities and social sciences have been in the forefront of showing that money is not enough to create good conditions for good education. In this context, it is important to remember that although the price tag for science and engineering (the N/T price tag) is higher than that for humanities and social sciences, it is still not sufficient to sustain the technology that requires training. For many years, KTH, which mainly conducts training with an N/T price tag, has seen that there are insufficient resources for the laboratory-intensive education.

Lab work is an integral part of technology training and this is where students are training for their future profession. In addition, lab work provides a foundation for the more theoretical aspects. The academisation of engineering education programmes has been spoken about for a long time. The scientific foundation has become more important, but in practice it has also become increasingly expensive to maintain facilities and equipment to operate the labs. Lab work is also very learning-intensive. Overall, the cost of operating laboratory education has risen much faster over the years than the change in the N/T price tag. A new system needs to turn this around, not least to continue to development the quality of technology training.

No freedom without responsibility

Is society’s confidence in universities still stable and still high? In some parts of the world we are seeing an increasing mistrust of research and scientific results. There is a tendency to present pseudoscience as the truth and there is also denial of the findings of leading research groups. At the same time, trust is not something one can have forever; it is also about proving oneself worthy of people’s confidence.

One core value for academia is the concept of academic freedom, which, put simply, is about choosing your research question on your own. In some parts of the world the core of this is democratic rights and freedoms. It is about being able to express an opinion freely and being able to research a certain area without fear of reprisals.

But the concept of academic responsibility is equally important and something that academic leadership should take time to reflect upon.

To be critical and reflective when it comes to a new knowledge is part of the academic responsibility. But it is not enough; it is also necessary to develop new answers and solutions for these questions. Criticism must be based on scientific evidence and must be balanced. Part of the academic responsibility is to be an advocate of knowledge that is based on scientific results.

The researcher is seen as a role model inside and outside their university. As mentor or coach to younger colleagues you are also a role model. The culture and the values you have are passed on to younger colleagues as they develop into independent academic researchers and teachers.

Part of being an academic leader is taking full responsibility for the development of one’s university when it comes to relationships with colleagues. It may not always benefit the individual, but it contributes to their own university’s development, and over time it can lead to excellent education and research.

To be available as experts in different contexts internally and externally is another element of academic responsibility. Not all expert roles involve “peer review”, but they may involve participation in government investigations where the aim is to create changes in society. That in itself is an important aspect of being an academic leader.

The academic responsibility extends from the research group out into the community, with the aim of eventually contributing to everyone’s development. Which role each of us is to have requires reflection by each and every one of us; but society needs—without a doubt—more critical voices that can also come up with new solutions.

Suggested further reading: ‘Intellectual leadership in higher education. Renewing the role of the university professor’, Bruce Macfarlane, 2012.

KTH is an engine of social development

It is very exciting to have the responsibility of being a new president. Is there any difference between leading a young, small university and an old, big one? With six years’ experience as head of the University of Skövde, and now as President of KTH, I am able to make a comparison.

All universities in Sweden have the same mission; namely education, research and collaboration. The highest academic leadership has the same job, whether leading a small university or a big university locally, nationally and internationally. What differentiates the universities are their requirements and their size.

Many presidents of Swedish universities are eagerly awaiting the government’s research bill, which is expected to change the way that research grants are allocated. How will the bill affect a young university compared with an old one? I hope there will not simply be a redistribution of resources from one to another. That would only increase the polarisation between the different universities, which would not be good for Sweden. You can hardly argue that resources are being evenly spread; not with the distribution we have today. Of course there is good postgraduate education, research and collaborative research happening at the young universities. But at the same time, it is very important to continue to strengthen education and research at the big universities. KTH is an internationally successful university, which means a lot for Sweden.

As the president of KTH, it feels good to be running a really, really good organisation. We have a solid foundation to build on in order to take KTH to the next level. Our operation will rest on three pillars: equality, internationalisation and sustainability. To continue building excellence we need extraordinary education; students need to have the best conditions to be engaged and to succeed in their studies. Furthermore, there needs to be first-class research; and we need to do some prioritising there.

Finally, KTH has to systematically and continuously show a commitment to society. This can be done by ensuring that as many people as possible know about our research. It can also be done through our researchers working with both the private and public sectors. For me personally, it is also important that KTH uses its good reputation to contribute to society locally, nationally and internationally. KTH is in a unique position that we need to use in the best way possible. Let’s use our position and work together to contribute to the development of society. This will make KTH even stronger!