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Innovation closely linked to research infrastructure

In recent years, there’s been much talk in Sweden about the need for increased innovation, both in the areas of services and products. Sweden is a strong industrial nation in which significant value is derived from innovation and benefits derived from research.

The National Innovation Council was founded in 2015 with the aim of developing Sweden as an innovative nation and thus increasing the country’s innovativeness.

Sweden is globally regarded as a highly innovative country, ranking second in the world in innovation rankings (behind South Korea) and first in the European rankings. It’s often said that one of the reasons for this is a commitment to excellent academic research, along with the fact that that individuals’ ideas are given the opportunity to develop, thus providing people with strong personal impetus. Despite this, many suggest the pace of innovation is slowing down.

My first meeting as part of the National Innovation Council last week brought me up to speed on how discussions are held on the council and what is currently being discussed, and provided me with a sense that many people regard academia as an engine for producing more innovations in Sweden. Cooperation is a natural part of what KTH has always done. At the same time, academia needs to safeguard its central role in undertaking both basic and applied research.

When producing research through collaboration or co-production, each of the parties involved needs to clearly define what they want to achieve through the joint project. This means the business community must acknowledge its own role; just keeping an eye on the research front waiting for developments isn’t a great way to start. In the same way, researchers shouldn’t engage in the development part of joint projects.

Monday’s meeting was divided into four parts:
– Testbed Sweden
– How authorities can contribute by thinking in new ways
– Innovation across the country
– Initiatives to develop the research system

Each part was of interest to KTH. The last point – Initiatives to develop the research system – is strongly connected to the research-policy bill Cooperative knowledge – addressing social challenges and increasing competition and was, of course, closely linked to the expectations of the academic world. The starting point for the discussion of the third point – Innovation across the country – was innovation and the development of small to medium-sized businesses across the whole nation.

I sometimes struggle to see how the academic world in general and KTH in particular can manage the full width of its duties, given that resources are roughly as large as in the past. The budgetary allocation for education has been gouged away since 1993; more education is being provided for the same money. Certainly, resources for research have increased, but at the same time there are now signals that educational institutions will be required to finance both joint-national and internal research infrastructure, to a higher degree than previously. This, of course, means that a portion of funding goes to financing infrastructure. One cannot refrain from creating modern research infrastructure; it is a prerequisite for excellent research.

Certain conditions need to be place if all educational institutions are to have the same tasks and requirements when it comes to capitalising on research. Teachers and researchers currently struggle to combine academic duties with the demands of being internationally renowned researchers. At the same time, research progress should be capitalised on in different ways. A globally attractive and strong KTH demands greater numbers of highly cited scientific papers as well as for KTH to collaborate closely in and contribute to service and product innovations, both nationally and internationally.

Will KTH and its academic staff be able to manage this with the current resource allocation?

Visibility – a most important mission

Sometimes–it doesn’t happen very often–one can have new and revolutionary insights. That’s when facts, research and extensive knowledge combine to mean that the way we look at the world will never be the same again.

It is fantastic and it is something that happens in both wider and narrower contexts; whether you are in the lab yourself and inspiration strikes, or, in the wider context you are working with a research team and finally make a breakthrough. I think that many, not least in the academic world, can recall a time when a moment of clarity became a matter of course.

And if someone has the ability to reach out and talk about their groundbreaking research, then new discoveries can become a collective eye-opener.

In recent weeks, two outstanding educators and storytellers, if one may call them that–Professor Hans Rosling and the photographer Lennart Nilsson–have passed away. Each in their own way turned things upside down with their performances and discovered new connections: Hans Rosling in the field of global health and Lennart Nilsson in the origins of life.

In days like these, when people seem to be lining up to deny facts and when even scientific facts are under suspicion, it feels very good that both of them were awarded KTH’s great prize.

The citation for the annual prize that has been awarded, with only a few exceptions, every year since 1945, says among other things that it should go to a person who “through the epoch-making discoveries and creation of new values ​​…”.

The list of recipients of the award also partly reflects Sweden’s industrial and technological development over the same period.

As we have been reminded of in the past week, Hans Rosling was able to enthuse an audience in a way that perhaps not many other people could. He was unique.

He showed how research and facts can be understood and how it is possible to reach out research to a diverse audience. It is also inspiring that playfulness and humour need not stand in contrast to weighty factual knowledge.

Increased visibility for the research carried out at KTH is not only part of our mission – it is something that can literally change the world.






The dilemma – democracy and collaboration

I’ve just paid a two-day flying visit to King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. This is a land that wants to strengthen its position in international research and education, maybe not the picture we usually have of Saudi Arabia. KAUST has been established with the vision of building a strong international university.

It’s a place that buzzes with the energy and the will to build a world-leading education and research institution. KAUST could almost be considered as a city in its own right; students and staff both academic and administrative staff work, live and have their entire social life in this secluded area.

In seven years KAUST has recruited teachers / researchers from all over the world. In many ways, it could probably be almost considered a dream life for a teacher/researcher.

KAUST is inspired by the American model, in particular Caltech. Education and research are closely linked because it only provides second and third-level education. The master’s course is usually called a research master, which means that students are closely linked to research and are welcome to continue with postgraduate studies.

Two things struck me; firstly, the huge sums that have been ploughed into the latest research infrastructures, among other things, including a supercomputer that was the seventh-most powerful in the world when it was installed.

Newly-recruited faculty members have in many cases been able to design their lab to include everything on their wish list. The other thing is the conditions of employment. A professor is hired on a five-year rolling contract, which means there is a performance evaluation each year. If you pass the assessment this adds a year to your contract, so that if you perform well you are constantly working from a five-year perspective. For this you are given a basic grant that is the same size as the ERC usually is. The pay is high and is tax-free. There’s no lack of money but there are grants that cover approximately 40 per cent of the cost of the degree. Need I mention that KAUST is private and in the beginning had no budget; you could buy everything you wanted.

So, can you ignore that KAUST is in Saudi Arabia? No, you can’t. But within the KAUST campus people are open to dress how they with, and women and men study on equal terms. It’s good that the student mix has very quickly reached 40 per cent women to 60 per cent men. However, I don’t understand why the university has not succeeded in becoming more equal when it comes to faculty recruitment; it’s really bad that only 9 per cent are women.

The question I asked myself is whether it is not so attractive after all for women teachers/researchers to join KAUST in Saudi Arabia. Some professors have come over with spouses who do not work and it feels very conservative. However, there is a mixture of women and men in the administration. We met the person responsible for international student recruitment, a woman from Italy who works at KAUST with her husband. The children of staff go to schools within the university area. People seldom need to leave the area, as everything is here.

I’m faced with the dilemma of this being a university that KTH could have much fruitful collaboration with, while it is in a country where women’s opportunities are severely restricted. Master’s students and doctoral students are given excellent opportunities to develop themselves in their fields. There is interesting research on solar energy underway (as we know the sun shines every day in Saudi Arabia) but there is also a lot of water research work, ranging from desalination to the recycling of water. The campus is located right beside the Red Sea, so there is a lot of climate and marine biology research. KAUST in Saudi Arabia is doing what, among others, Singapore is doing by investing a lot of money in higher education. KAUST’s publication record is strong, and soon enough, we will see it climb in the rankings.

Life outside the campus is a lot less accessible; a woman is expected to be fully covered by an abaya robe whenever she goes outside of the university area. Although our hosts say that they are not as strict when it comes to women wearing headscarves it is a very conservative society. Then it is also difficult to forget the legislation that the country has, including brutal executions and other archaic punishments.

But we are faced with the same dilemma in other parts of the world. The best contribution to social development is through education. Higher education means to be able to influence openness and inclusion. KTH has previously chosen to have a lot of presence in China, Southeast Asia, India and Brazil. There are all countries and areas where both cultural and democratic rights are different than they are in Sweden. We should discuss this issue more so we are clear about our values ​​and our principles for cooperation.

If KTH wants to further strengthen its position in the world it will need to have good relations with a string of universities. To a great extent, co-publishing with excellent researchers around the world increases the impact of KTH’s research. Impressions from different parts of the world enrich and deepen students’ knowledge. But KTH cannot be naive, nor should we be requiring employees to travel to countries where it is not safe. Unfortunately, it is not enough to think only about excellent education and research; we also need to have a sound compass to navigate an increasingly complex world.

KTH is now starting to develop an internationalisation strategy. This will help us when we come to work together in the global arena.

When facts become fiction responsibility increases

Something that has taken up a lot of space in all corners of the media in the past week is the question of alternative facts. What are they?
For those of us who spend a large part of our time on the right education and research, facts constitute the very core of our business–they are knowledge and research results that can be measured, tested, verified, structured, analysed and repeated.

The role of universities in a factual sphere that is so characterised by a lack of transparency and by arbitrariness is becoming even more important, as the university itself is both the producer and disseminator of knowledge.

 In Högskolelagen, the law that regulates higher education institutions and universities in Sweden, it is written that the universities’ duties are to interact with society and to inform people about their activities, as well as making sure that the results of their research will benefit others.

 That third mission is not just a legal requirement; it is possibly even more important to take seriously when misinformation is becoming a part of our daily news intake.

But this should not be confused with the frequent process of revising opinions that goes on in research, as this is something that is based on evidence-based facts. The researcher often ends up with the kind of reasoning that says ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other’ because of the complex nature of problems and solutions. This reasoning can also act as an incentive for the researcher to continue their research because it is a sign that there is more work to be done. To provide a relevant picture is, as far as possible, part of our mission.

If we do not work together to fulfil this mission, we risk falling into a veritable quagmire of opinions, half-truths, half-lies and everything in between.

In a much-changed media landscape, where access is open to all and sundry, it is important to discuss the distribution and visibility of our research. But it is not enough to think that we should do it – we also have to think about how we should do it. Therefore, it is especially important to start a discussion about how research should be communicated to a wider audience. The democratisation of media and the digitilisation process have changed the communications playing field quite significantly.

With all the information that we process almost 24 hours a day in one way or another, in one channel or another, it is more important than ever to see through any lack of scientific facts.

Here, the researchers also have an important role in making the story about their research more understandable – without compromising its accuracy, of course. As in all crafts, there may be a tendency to hide behind unnecessarily tricky jargon which can cause problems:

– No-one other than researchers in the same the field understands what the research is about.
– It’s easier to suggest that things are being hidden when the content is described in complicated language.
– It can be harder to make the research results visible and demonstrate their benefits.

Before Christmas a debater suggested that we should set up an itinerant professor of popular science to get the university’s knowledge out there. Perhaps that might be an idea?

And to make sure the content hits the mark, why not use this guide which was mentioned in the newspaper Curie last autumn, with tips on how to debunk popular myths and distorted facts.

Bureaucracy a barrier to intellectual mobility

Internationalisation is, and should be, a matter of course in academia, where knowledge is by its very nature something which crosses borders. Research and education are developed, thrive and inspired by ideas and by the sharing of knowledge and experience. However, for internationalisation to have real meaning a flexible system is needed.

Internationalisation is also crucial for a small country like Sweden, not least for academic institutions, especially as the proportion of international students are a crucial factor in how institutions perform in the international rankings. The universities put a lot of effort and resources into this, and for the individual student, it is a great bet for the future. Of course, in the long term these students are also ambassadors for Sweden.

In its survey of tuition fees carried out on behalf of the Swedish Government, the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKA) looked at the system of tuition fees that has functioned since its inception. When fees were introduced for students from outside the EU (so-called third-country students) the motivation was that this would make Sweden able to compete by offering a higher quality of education rather than offering a free education.

After the tuition fees were introduced in autumn 2011, the number of third-country students decreased sharply. But, through purposeful and persistent work, the number increased again. For KTH, the number of new students paying for their studies in 2011 was 136, of which 72 had their studies funded by grants. The corresponding figures for 2016 were 523 paying students, of which 88 received scholarships.

 A worrying trend is that there a number of steps which seem to complicate things for those who want to study in Sweden.

Many drop out at the entry fee stage or during the registration process, when the student is admitted for study, and tuition fees and a residence permit are required. According to UKA’s report only 30 percent of third-party students who were admitted last autumn made it through the bureaucratic mill to actually start studying in Sweden, after long delays waiting for a residence permit. The corresponding proportion among those admitted from the Swedish population was 80 percent.

These difficulties have been forcefully pointed out by different institutions, but it requires action from our decision-makers to make the system smoother.

The inconvenience suffered by some students is at odds with the sentiments of internationalisation and global development, which are needed, not least, to strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness in the global market. There must be clear prioritisation in the handling of visa and residence permits for students and guest researchers, as there can be problems in terms of initially obtaining a visa, and even when the visa has to be extended, too.

There needs to be a rethink on the issue of ​​students paying for their studies. For example, some countries in the world provide aid to other countries. Why not allow these students to be exempt from tuition fees and let this be part of Sweden’s aid package? Although there are scholarships designed for these students, it’s not enough by a long shot. It’s time for a rethink on this issue.

 However, if the red tape is not eliminated, changing the grant system will be of little help. Neither the people who come to Sweden as refugees nor those who come to study and do research are being helped by the current situation.