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Wider playing field and courage important for deeptech research

Translating new, exciting ideas that can change society into practical solutions in everyday life is something KTH works on a broad front- not least with the help of KTH Innovation.

A particularly interesting area for innovation is what is usually called “deep tech”. These are pioneering technology areas that require large investments in research and development to move from idea to application and commercialisation. New deep tech companies are therefore research-based and knowledge-intensive, with a business model that requires both high investment and risk-taking.

Unlike ordinary start-up companies that have a clear product or solution, deep tech covers multifaceted issues, often some of our societal challenges with research that can take a long time and have a long path to the market. It can involve research in AI, energy, waste management, biotech, materials, robotics and life sciences, to name some of them.

In most of these areas, KTH has important and relevant research to contribute with. We want and should be a research actor when it comes to society’s future issues, which are very much in areas that are crucial for the future.However, deep tech requires patience, perseverance and a research policy that supports this in order to benefit society.

When it comes to the development of deep tech, a key challenge is to find solutions within the research and innovation policy system so that research advances can be scaled up via pilot and test facilities or demonstrators to eventually generate commercial solutions. Often these are steps that traditional research funding cannot handle, but it may also be too early in the process for traditional venture capital to be available. Therefore, large strategic investments are needed that probably need to be a mix of public and private, national and international capital.

Identifying how different deep tech areas can be managed and the national conditions have been analysed by Vinnova. KTH is active and prominent in several of the eight deep tech platforms identified and analysed and our responsibility in the larger research and innovation policy system is to continue to build research environments with groundbreaking research in an ecosystem where innovation and applications go hand in hand.

KTH does not operate in a vacuum; collaboration across both disciplines and national borders is a matter of course. Sometimes Sweden’s playing field can seem a little too small and we as a university should seek international collaborations to be at the forefront of breakthrough areas – not least in Europe.

Now that the Government is dealing with the comments on the research funding inquiry, Fofin, and preparing a new research and innovation policy bill, it is hoped that these major strategic investments for Sweden and the future will also find their way into the budget tables!

Universities strengthen the resilience of society

What can Swedish higher education institutions contribute in the event of a crisis or war? This was a question I reflected on during a lecture at the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences, IVA, in early February.

International recruitment is one of our tasks where we need to include security checks of various kinds, export controls are carried out regularly, and individual recruitments must also be assessed based on potential security risks. This is a challenging job in an organisation where the researcher’s drive and the teacher’s commitment to their own activities need to be combined with a strong judgement of when and how risks arise.

This has meant that we now also know where in the university we have security-sensitive information in one form or another. This may be through collaboration with the defence industry or in partnerships that mean that information about Swedish installations is made available, and it may also involve research or educational environments where access to such knowledge can be expected. We have therefore also carried out more in-depth security protection analyses than before, which also makes us better prepared for more serious crises.

Bu t otherwise, the primary role of higher education institutions may not be to be activated in a crisis or war, but rather to contribute to building capacity, knowledge, skills and abilities that can make society more robust and resilient in future crises or war situations.

This is how research and higher education in general contribute to society – a factory of the future, preparing for future solutions and needs. Researchers and teachers at universities must look ahead, around the corner, beyond the current knowledge frontier, in order to contribute to this building of the future. It is building societal resilience by creating skills and knowledge for use in both civil and public organisations. As an example of this, we at KTH inaugurated Cybercampus Sweden on 7 February.

The pandemic and SciLifeLab is another example that was activated in two ways, partly for sampling and analysis, and partly to build long-term pandemic preparedness.

Virtually all our areas of knowledge at KTH have a relevance for building the secure society of the future and for Sweden to be better equipped when war or crisis comes. Of course, this is not only about knowledge for armed conflicts, but also about robust social systems, secure installations, life sciences, aeronautical engineering, clean water, food supply and secure energy supply.

Collaboration for a better society

Collaborating with other universities is something KTH has done for a long time. Collaboration can take many different forms, but the aim is the same – to work together for a better society.

However, it is perhaps more important than ever to collaborate across disciplines, institutions, countries and expertise to find solutions to the complex challenges facing society.

Collaboration can, for example, look like the university alliance Stockholm Trio where we work together with Karolinska Institutet and Stockholm University in education and research and where our differences can be said to be one of our strengths. We are different in both size and focus, but we complement each other and are all located in the science and innovation hub Stockholm.

This autumn, our new joint and international master’s programme in biostatistics and computer science will start, which will generate a wide range of skills among our students. Fortunately, the application pressure has been great and, like the previous joint master’s programme in life sciences, this type of investment definitely gives us a taste for more. Perhaps this mix of skills will be characteristic of future students from Stockholm when they are in demand in the global labour market.

Overall, the Stockholm Trio is one of the world’s leading universities with a total of 62,000 students and 17,500 employees. Together we account for almost a third of Sweden’s research and postgraduate education and almost 20 per cent of all students in the country. In addition, we are neighbours in Stockholm and have more or less contiguous campuses.

Another exciting collaboration is the one we have had with four other leading technical universities in the Nordic region for almost 20 years.  Nordic5Tech, or N5T, is a strategic alliance between KTH, NTNU in Trondheim, Aalto in Helsinki, DTU in Copenhagen and Chalmers.

These universities are scientifically similar and we share many challenges with them. We complement, strengthen and inspire each other in research, education and innovation. N5T offers, among other things, joint master’s programmes, student exchanges and a joint portal for courses in postgraduate education. KTH and Aalto, together with another seven universities, are also part of Unite!, which is part of the EU’s “European University Initiative” (EUI). Unite offers many opportunities for student exchanges and participation in programmes throughout Europe and international research collaborations. Together with more than 50 universities with a technical and scientific focus in Europe, we are members of CESAER. This is primarily a network for opinion formation, political monitoring and debate at the European level. In addition to all the fairly close cooperation that we have in Sweden, the Nordic countries and Europe, we also have strategic cooperation agreements with a limited number of universities around the world.

University collaborations are, as I said, important for KTH and I hope we can continue to develop these in a strategic way with clear purposes and effects.

Safety and security always come first

Many events and conflicts in the world around us attract attention, and from time to time there are demands that KTH as a university should take a position in favour for or against a particular conflict or geopolitical event.

The increasing polarization and the high tone of voice where the world is increasingly dressed in only black or white reinforces these demands. Campaign-like appeals on social media are becoming increasingly common, where the logic that if you are not in, you are against seems to apply. This type of discussion climate does not fit well with the researcher’s task of using facts to highlight several different perspectives and advocate different results as part of an academic dialogue.

I am well aware that these are genuinely difficult questions and, given the high standards in academia, there is a responsibility to create an atmosphere that encourages a free search for knowledge, free dissemination of knowledge and free debate. But at the same time, it is a priority that our students and staff feel safe and secure on our campuses regardless of where they come from and what their opinions are.

In our vision we write “Our academic freedom and our principles of openness and transparency are fundamental to the development of knowledge and democracy” and this can also serve as a guide in the difficult delineations that we may be forced to make when it comes to everything from taking positions in conflicts in other parts of the world or considering what is knowledge worth protecting in the new, more complex international environment.

In other words, balancing the aim of KTH as an open and internationalized knowledge arena on the one hand, and on the other hand a protected place where neither national security interests nor individual groups are harmed, is difficult and we should be aware that there are no simple, ready-made answers to all the questions that arise. Some starting points, however, are that we follow the government’s line in terms of foreign policy positions, internally we have an ethical policy and our vision and goal documents to relate to, we have a new security organisation and also a security protection analysis that has recently been carried out, and we have greater awareness throughout the organisation.

But what is crucial in everyday life is the safety and security of students and staff. If this is lost, we risk ending up in a culture of silence, which would be devastating for a university.

The legacy of Alfvén

A year ago, the opera ‘The Tale of the Great Computing Machine’, based on ‘The Tale of the Great Computer’ written by Hannes Alfvén in 1966, was a success at KTH. He was a KTH professor and Nobel Prize winner, and yesterday the various Nobel Prizes were awarded.

Working at KTH, which is full of talent and stars, makes me undeniably proud – soon our second Nobel Prize may be on its way – who knows?Hannes Alfvén received the prize in physics in 1970 and I have always been curious about him as a person. Who was he and what was his legacy to his alma mater?

To answer this question, a while ago I got my hands on a fantastic book “Tidens retorik”. It was written by Svante Lindqvist, a former professor of history of technology at KTH Royal Institute of Technology who has long been fascinated by Alfvén.

I have not yet read the entire comprehensive volume – I will readily admit – but the picture of a highly committed and solid researcher emerges. He seems to have been genuinely curious not only about science but also about the society in which it operates.

To dare to be critical and see how various technological advances can also have a downside feels like a legacy from Alfvén. In addition to being an extraordinary scientist, he was also a committed social debater and eventually took a stand against nuclear power. It was a position that was not appreciated in all parts of society at the time, but which nevertheless shows his great integrity and commitment to contemporary issues.

Another commitment, if one may speculate, was as the bearer of KTH’s tradition of close co-operation and interaction with industry and society in general. Something that we carry on more than 80 years later in our strategic partnerships.

Alfvén apparently invented the trochotron whose patent was sold to LM Ericsson in 1946 for a sum that exceeded the Nobel Prize he received much later.

By the way, I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in due time!