Researchers at NTNU, where Stig Slördahl is the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. He argues that a creative research environment is about having money and infrastructure at your disposal. The researchers stand for the creativity.

The road towards world class research

Svenska 2015-02-24

Recruiting the best researchers is one thing, but ensuring that they produce exceptional research – perhaps even a Nobel Prize – is something else. The next challenge becomes keeping these excellent researchers and staying on top. 

Stig Slördahl, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), always said he would retire once Maj-Britt and Edvard Moser had received the Nobel Prize.

“I thought it would happen just in time for my retirement. I actually pretended to quit my job after Maj-Britt had danced in my office”, he explains.

The best researchers are given a gold card

Stig Slördahl is careful to point out that he was not behind the recruitment of the Moser couple, that was done before he was the Dean.

“However, I have worked hard to keep them here at NTNU and I think that this has been important. They have been given some great offers from top-notch international universities. It would have been devastating to lose two such excellent researchers,” he states.

To recruit researchers and to ensure that they settle in takes time. Therefore, the best researchers are given a gold card, which means that they are made a priority. In practice, this means that they are helped with administration and that their research applications are prioritised.

“The best research groups are given more resources. But they have to prove that they are worth this honour, otherwise they might lose the card.

To get the golden ticket of research resources the researchers have to stand out in some way. For instance, they might have received a very good assessment for an international application for a research grant, or have been selected for a centre of excellence.

It takes guts to recruit

The Moser couple were initially offered one position which later became two positions.

“The Department of Psychology had quite a lot of resources at the time, and therefore we were able to offer them two positions, and then some more.

Their research field, examining at the relationship between behaviour and the biology of the brain, was actually not in line with the research that was being carried out at the University. But the Moser couple were allowed to build this new field – and eventually an entire department. This was a wise decision, and not a one off incident”, Stig Slördahl points out.

“It takes guts to recruit and you have to acknowledge when a researcher has a good idea. The idea does not necessarily have to fit the research that is being carried out in the department. We can create possibilities for these talents, and if everything goes well, their research will eventually generate new resources such as research grants”.

According to Stig Slördahl, a creative research environment is about having an infrastructure and money at your disposal. The researchers stand for the creativity.

“Young researchers follow their curiosity, we cannot be creative for them. However, we can let them be curious, and support them when they are willing to take a risk”, says Stig Slördahl.

He thinks that it is a shame that failure, such as a more daring project not resulting in a new discovery or a publication, weighs so heavily in academia. He argues that, like in the business world, failure must occasionally be a part of the process.

Being able to make a quick decision

Another winning concept, according to Stig Slördahl, is the department’s ability to make quick decisions. This makes it easier to make changes and to adapt the organisation after the existing needs.

“Management at all levels of NTNU are not elected, but employed, unlike other faculties and universities. This means that the leadership is completely different; things are not just talked about but implemented as well. Otherwise, these types of processes can be quite slow at universities”.

At the same time, it is important to build up trust between the researchers and the management, as well as establishing a common vision. Everyone must be a part of something bigger: of NTNU’s vision of conducting research which provides “knowledge for a better world”.

“Everyone must feel like they can contribute and that they can develop their careers here. There must be room for everyone to express their opinions”.

Staying on top

The Medical School at NTNU is the most popular one in Norway. Many international researchers also move to Trondheim because of the research environment. The Nobel Prize will surely increase the interests in the university, but beyond all of this, Stig Slördahl believes that NTNU has a lot to offer.

For example, NTNU work closely with the University Hospital St. Olavs Hospital. This has resulted in outstanding research, such as echocardiography and major population studies that examine the relationship between living standards and health.

“NTNU has recently decided to merge with one higher education institute in Trondheim and two others in Gjøvik and Ålesund. It will be the biggest faculty for health in Norway”, Stig Slördahl explains.

Research is being conducted in the newly built university hospital; the Faculty of Medicine own a quarter of the hospital.

“It can be hard being the best, you have to constantly think outside the box to maintain that position. We are trying to strengthen the positive spiral by making things happen, such as recruiting creative and excellent researchers. The Nobel Prize for the Moser couple is proof that we have succeeded in creating a good research environment with talented researchers”, Stig Slördahl concludes.

Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: Geir Mogen / NTNU