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Stockholm Trio inspiring in European context

The Stockholm Trio University Alliance has taken further steps in its development – not least in the European arena.

We three, Stockholm University, the Karolinska Institute and KTH  who make up the the Stockholm Trio University Alliance, have consolidated our collaboration and our visibility over the past year as an internationally competitive higher education environment in a number of different ways. For example, we have developed a clear compass for the future by setting prioritised goals and charted our existing collaborations within research, education and administration.

We held a very interesting seminar on research ethics at the end of May, where researchers from different disciplines sliced and diced concepts, roles and dilemmas.

Before the pandemic struck, the Deputy President, several Vice Presidents and I were able to make a round trip of universities in Britain. Our schedule included visits to Manchester University and University College London (UCL).

The aim was to build new contacts for continued collaboration after Brexit. In addition to being an incredibly interesting and inspiring trip, it has also resulted in a number of collaborations with the University of Manchester for instance, not only for KTH but also for another member of Stockholm Trio, namely Stockholm University. After our visit to UCL, as part of the parameters for Stockholm Trio, a research summit on the theme of Climate Change and Health in the City was organised last week together with UCL, the City of London, the City of Stockholm and Region Stockholm. The summit took place on 15 June as part of the launch of the Cities Partnership Programme. This opens fantastic opportunities for networking and cross border knowledge exchange. Not least concerning how to apply for research funding within the EU research programme Horizon Europe. It is unlikely all the above would have happened without Stockholm Trio.

In early June, our joint representative office was officially opened in Brussels, albeit in a digital ceremony, via a conference on how collaboration within research and innovation can recover and be further developed after the pandemic.

It is very pleasing to report that the seminar and Stockholm Trio University Alliance appear to have attracted a big audience, not least from different networks in Brussels and the rest of Europe.

I am also looking forward to the first round of the EuroScience Policy Forum on 29-30 June, where Stockholm Trio is a co-organiser. The theme is sustainable academia and the event is being held simultaneously in several cities in Europe. Sounds tremendously exciting and it is open to everyone 1st EuroScience Policy Forum discusses the future of academia – EuroScience.

After my year as chair, I will pass the baton to Ole Petter Ottersen at the Karolinska Institute on 1 July.

On that note, I feel it is time for a delightful and relaxing holiday.

Blended learning is the new normal

Education at KTH is going to change for ever. Based on the lessons we have learned from the pandemic period, a mix of physical and online learning will be the future. However, we may need to pay a bit more attention to those students arriving this autumn who may well have spent half their upper secondary school time in front of a computer screen.

Choosing technology that supports learning is easier now than before, as digital solutions for this are now available and being developed for this purpose.

Several different reports show what the enormous amount of knowledge lost during this period has meant for our upper secondary school students when teachers and students have been working remotely. Both on a personal and a socio-economic level. According to a piece in Skolvärlden (in Swedish) this can amount to billions for society in the long-term.

This was one of the reasons why I chose to take the decisions in late May and early June, to open our campuses and that more staff should return and work on site again. To ensure that we will be ready to welcome our new students at the start of the semester.

Naturally, this was also in the light if the favourable forecasts concerning infection rates and vaccinations published by the Swedish Public Health Agency. These decisions chime well with the ending from 1 June of the recommendation that education should be organised remotely which was decided by the authorities.

When it comes to our employees, their jobs will also include a blend of physical and work, and here hopefully, our travel habits will change. Rather than flying for a short meeting in London or Singapore, it has become far more acceptable to meet via screens instead. These days, there are sensible, acceptable and more sustainable options than routine travel for the sake of it.

Now we can all look forward to an autumn that will include new meetings and new opportunities, something that I imagine, most of us have been longing for. It is said that creativity and innovation arise in times of crisis in order to find new solutions.  We have genuinely seen this within both research and education when the pandemic struck.  Now when we are entering a new and more mixed existence within many sectors of society, including research, working life and education, it is perhaps time for this again.

What is important for KTH is to evaluate the whole picture; what has worked well and what has worked less well. This is something the whole of society needs to do, to ensure working lives in the future will be both productive and sustainable in the long-term where the focus of each individual is balanced with the focus of the organisation.



Uncertain conditions for young researchers can slow down research

That researchers should be teachers and vice versa is important for both cross fertilisation between the different skills sets along with mobility and clarity at a university.  This not only benefits students but also young researchers when building a career.

It is clear from the report  (in Swedish) on the reality for young researchers published by the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) and National Junior Faculty (NJF) ,that the position of young researcher can be something of a quagmire. A survey sent to around 1,500 young researchers reveals that their reality can look very different when it comes to employment conditions, titles, research and position.

Research assistant, assistant researcher, lab manager are just some of all the variants of titles that are found, around 20 in all, that emerged from the survey. This is not only confusing but also risks researchers getting locked into the university where they began their research, as it is hard to say what would be the corresponding position at other universities. Another risk according to the report, is also that it is more difficult to apply for research funding if nobody knows what your position entails even if the most common titles seem to be postdoc, researcher, research assistant, assistant professor.

Living on a grant or salary only for as long as the research group funding lasts, creates an uncertain situation and makes both forward planning and planning your life more difficult.

Being able to freely apply for research funding from some external research financing body is positive, the difficulty is that without a long-term plan on what the next step is, means expectations as to future career development can come to naught. This increases the risk of stress and anxiety.

There is a big need for clearer career paths for the group of researchers at our universities.  At the same time, research groups/units/departments ought to work together to a greater extent than all and sundry polishing their own CVs. This would benefit both education and research in the long run. No matter where you sit in the nomenclature, everyone in a research group would gain, and it would probably create less stress and lead to even more successful research.

A lack of job security and unclear career paths are something KTH has worked hard to remedy, but there is very clearly still a lot to be done here. Above all, there is a need to clearly state whether there is a next step on the career ladder when a researcher is accepted. Perhaps there isn’t one.

At the moment, researchers as a group perform a diversity of tasks. Some are given responsibility for an infrastructure, others can be a centre director and yet another group can engage in activities that are very similar to being employed in a teaching capacity (assistant professor, associate professor and professor). It is less common for a researcher to work in the same way as a lecturer, whose principal role is teaching. Within the parameters of this diversity of tasks, there need to be some kind of structure and clarity.

If we are not able to get things in order, there is a risk that the repopulation of teaching and research expertise will be endangered.


Doctoral students- a bit of everything?

Doctoral students are important for KTH. Not only are they members of research teams and perform tasks that advance research, but they are also future colleagues at KTH or somewhere else in the world. But what exactly is a doctoral student? A student, a researcher, an employee – all of these or do they occupy an area somewhere in the middle?

Last week, on 5 May, the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF), the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and Sweden’s Combined Students’ Unions (SFS), arranged a conference that focused on this grey area of third cycle education.

It had two themes and shed light on how doctoral students feel, based on a report from ST and SFS  (in Swedish) that provides statistics on their working environment and on the status of doctoral students and their terms and conditions. These are issues of interest to many people and the conference aimed to generate ideas and support for how third cycle education can be made more attractive by presenting good examples and highlighting difficulties, such as the views of Mid Sweden University.

Third cycle education is part of KTH’s education contract and for the past ten years it has been structured into doctoral programmes with programme directors. The aim is to create clear goals for this education and to build a critical mass of students and achieve a certain uniformity in choice of courses. The pieces are starting to fall into place but there is still room for improvement in many areas.

Being a doctoral student at KTH entails both having an individual research assignment and being part of a larger or smaller research environment . As with all education, it is naturally demanding and sometimes stressful. Doctoral students are important for KTH. Being a citizen of the academic community includes training the next generation of researchers and it is exactly this that third cycle education does, you are learning under supervision to become a researcher. Doctoral students are not glorified lab assistants there to support their supervisors in qualifying but individuals independently resolving a research assignment and doing this under supervision. At KTH, supervisors are to have completed the KTH supervisor programme or equivalent course at another university.

Just as there are goals for Master of Science in Engineering degrees, for example, there are goals for third cycle education. When these goals are achieved, the doctoral student is ready to defend their thesis. Sometimes there is a focus on time, whether it has or has not taken four years (five with departmental duties). It is not this that is important, it is goal fulfilment itself that is the key.

One challenge in third cycle education at KTH concerns financing which is largely external. In normal cases, financing is obtained for three years. This also means that a supervisor or supervisor group has formulated a research project within which the doctoral student should work. Sometimes, this is perceived as more controlling, that is to say that the degree of independence for the doctoral student can be challenged. On the whole, this works well enough though.

However, there is a big difference between third cycle education within technology (and in science and medicine) and education in the humanities or social sciences. Within the latter areas, there is normally greater scope for a doctoral student to formulate their own research proposal. But even here, this can be related to the degree of external financing as it is not the doctoral student who applies for financing.

KTH is continuing to develop its doctoral programmes and individual study plans (ISP) under the leadership of the Vice President of Education. ISP ought to become more of an educational support than a to do list to tick off, and both doctoral students and supervisors will benefit from this.

No matter how doctoral students are categorised in the higher education landscape, they are  an asset and absolutely vital for the repopulation of know-how and future research.

Resource model misses the mark

As parliament,last week on April 21, voted in favour of the government research bill recently presented, I feel compelled to return to my old hobby horse: Increase basic funding instead.
What worries me is the new model for allocating resources for research that will come into force in two years where strategic profiling will make the difference.

The thinking is, as far as I am aware, that the resources will be allocated in accordance with a new model to stimulate research and education at researcher level. This should then drive quality such that Swedish research will be able to better hold its own internationally.  To gain their share of these resources, universities will need to showcase their respective profile areas and the quality of these is to be evaluated by expert advisers to the government research councils.

The aim is said to be to broaden the concept of quality, which can sound laudable. But I have my doubts. Naturally, the current model in which two indicators are used to measure quality, is not perfect. Since 2009, bibliometrics (the number of publications and citations in scientific journals) and the amount of external funding, have been a model for reallocating part of basic funding for research and third cycle education.

It is always difficult to know whether what you do measure is what you actually want to measure, as is whether the results enable accurate comparisons. However profiling, where each university is to apply for an allocation, risks having the opposite effect. Plus, it indicates an inability to prioritise. Is the aim to boost the international competitiveness of the universities or to strengthen research and third cycle education at both large and small universities in the whole of Sweden? The proposal now presented does neither.

 From the proposal now resolved on it is clear that the idea of profile areas comes from the was the  Inquiry on Governance and Resources (STRUT) (SOU 2019: 6). University profiling and the need for more dialogue were discussed there, but how this goes together with the profile areas now being launched and the coming announcement on applications, is less clear.

More dialogue is by necessity not the same thing as universities being required to apply for resources. On the other hand, there is an expectation of being able to discuss goals and strategies in greater detail for the chosen profiling of a university.  Replacing one system (bibliometrics and external funding as indicators) that passively measures results with a system where the universities are going to have to allocate time to apply for what in practice is relatively meagre funding, feels like a waste of resources. And it will be a case of meagre resources, as all universities, according to this line of thinking, are to be guaranteed that they will get at least one profile area.

Which brings us back to where we started. Why not let the universities decide for themselves to a greater extent by raising basic funding instead? Sometimes, commendable aims can cloud the view as it is perhaps more about taking greater control. In which case, there will be less room for manoeuvre in the pot of jam.