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.