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Research factories, no thanks!

The other week I took part in a debate about how relevant Swedish research is and its global competitiveness. And was then asked the question of how our cutting-edge research could be given an even sharper edge and maybe even greater breadth. By not giving universities greater freedom and the associated responsibilities that go with this, there is a big risk that we will see even more opportunistic research. That worries me.

We are all forced to respond to calls for applications and there is a risk that our researchers will have to compete with each other as so many researchers have to chase the same ball in the race for resources. Also having to try to structure your research or at least your application accordingly is by no means plain sailing either. Forcing the same ball into a small square hole is difficult. Unless you let out the air, obviously. Adapting your research to the call for applications can chip away at free thinking and risk the same kind of research being repeated even through there are already sets of results to proceed further with. That worries me.

The consequences of the eternal hunt for money, which is not only incredibly stressful for the professors and research leaders, but also means universities risk becoming a kind of factory for research production where the often three-year cycle for grants determines the tempo, thinking, and tactics. After eighteen months to two years, it is time to keep one eye on your wallet and new calls for applications, and the other eye on your research as best you can. That is really worrying.

To my mind, if a researcher is not able to think in peace and quiet and, for resource reasons, dares not to tackle something new, there will be little if anything cutting edge. This is essential research that can be incredibly significant for developments 20 years down the line. That worries me.

It will be more difficult to keep top international researchers as they get rather surprised by the Swedish system and engage in some serious head scratching: Do I really have to chase money to pay myself as well?

An imbalance between research grants and competitive research funding can be another cause for concern. The companies account for about 70 percent of all research and development in Sweden. Universities and higher education institutions account for just over 23 percent. That the Swedish model for research funding has a lot more to be desired is nothing new and of course no system is perfect. But it does not help.

In comparison with other countries seen in terms of the proportion of GDP that goes to research and development, the figure for Sweden was 3.31 percent in 2018. Other countries in Europe are starting to catch up and several countries in Asia can very well overtake us. That should worry the politicians.