Director General of the Swedish Research Council Sven Stafström.

Swedish Research Council leads the way forward

Svenska 2019-05-21

The importance of undirected research for social development and the need to invest more in national infrastructure. These were some of the issues highlighted in the Swedish Research Council’s report Future choices, which shows the way forward for Swedish research.

The guiding words in the report are knowledge, quality and integrity. Sven Stafström, Director General of the Swedish Research Council, explains how this links together.

“High-quality research leads to new knowledge. The quality concept is central for us, and for how we see our role as a research funding body. Our goal is to fund research projects of the highest quality, and we also see ourselves as a public agency that drives forward quality issues.”

Freedom and responsibility for researchers

The third guiding word, integrity, is linked to the research process according to Sven Stafström.

“It is about the freedom of researchers to decide for themselves the focus of their research, but also about that research being done in the right way.”

One chapter in the report therefore concerns research ethics and good research practice. The Swedish Research Council proposes to produce a short guide to good research practice that every researcher can learn and relate to. A longer guide already exists, which is used on doctoral programmes for example, but a short version may play an important role in preventing scientific misconduct, according to Sven Stafström.

“If you work according to the guidelines for good research practice, then you minimise the risk of misconduct and also clarify the concept in itself. The preventive work shall be part of the quality culture in the research environment.”

Lift pitch to the minister for research

Future choices gives recommendations for how Swedish research can be strengthened within twelve areas (see fact box).

But if you only had a minute with the minister for research, what would you bring up then?

“In a short-term perspective, I would bring up the importance of national infrastructure for research, and that we need more funding for this infrastructure. We also co-fund a large number of international infrastructures, and this has become much more expensive, because of the weakened Swedish krona and other reasons.”

“Infrastructure has swallowed quite a large part of the Swedish Research Council’s overall budget, and higher education institutions have also chipped in as sources of funding,” he points out.

“Any vice-chancellor who met the minister for research in the lift would probably bring up the same issue.”

When it comes to important long-term research issues, Sven Stafström would choose to talk about the importance of undirected research for societal development.

“It is easy to think that the money should be invested in research that addresses specific societal challenges. Our experience, however, shows that researchers themselves formulate relevant research questions to solve these challenges. The minister for research needs to be aware of the importance of undirected project grants for these issues.”

Funds for discovering the unknown

According to Sven Stafström, it is about finding the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the things we didn’t even know we didn’t know about.

“Our task is to find these areas with the help of undirected research. Our role as an external funding body is to assess the quality of research projects, and we must also dare to take some risks. This is built into our process when we assess applications – our critera cover factors such as innovation and originality, in order to tease out ground-breaking research.”

One example of research that began in the unknown and resulted in a scientific breakthrough is Emmanuelle Charpentier’s discovery of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology. She was given the freedom to conduct research into a subject she found interesting, without knowing whether the results would have any practical application. Apart from the funding of the project, in this particular case the research environment also played a crucial role, Sven Stafström emphasises.

“She applied to Umeå University, because she could develop her research and herself as a researcher there. It is important that the research environments in Sweden are attractive to both Swedish and international talents.”

Security and the opportunity to grow

The Swedish Research Council’s role as an external funding body is to give the best researchers funds to enable them to conduct their research. The assessment of the applications also provides important information to higher education institutions of the ideas that are the strongest in national comparison.

“Many higher education institutions use this information when they allocate their direct government grants. If you receive a project grant from the Swedish Research Council, then your chances of receiving internal funding also increase.”

Sven Stafström proposes a model where the direct grants represent security, while external funding gives researchers the opportunity to develop and grow. This combination is important, not least for creating better career paths for junior researchers.

“The direct government grant should offer certain conditions over a certain time. The recruitment of researchers should be done through open calls in competition, and must not be too narrow. Junior researchers can become prominent fairly quickly too, and you have to be able to offer good conditions.”

“The direct government grant should be able to cover the salaries of researchers later on in their careers too,” says Sven Stafström.

Council for strategic initiatives

Around 80 per cent of the Swedish Research Council’s funds go to unfocused project grants, while the remaining 20 per cent go to strategic initiatives.

In Future choices, the Swedish Research Council proposes that a council for strategic initiatives should be established. The council would identify research areas that might be of interest to Sweden, and any strategic international collaboration that might be valuable.

One way of carrying out this work might be using digital tools, such as text analysis of publications.

“The point is to enable identification of the areas where Sweden has the best prerequisites for success,” emphasises Sven Stafström.

The way forward

The Swedish Research Council’s scientific councils, councils and committees have produced research reviews within their respective subject areas.  Together with Future choices, they form the basis for the Research Council’s strategic work. They also form important documentation for the Government when deciding on what is required to strengthen Swedish research.

By 31 October at the latest, the Swedish Research Council and the other research councils must provide input to the Government’s research bill 2020. Then, certain items will need to be specified.

“We make fairly general proposals in the report. When the Government wants answers to specific questions, we can be more detailed, and for example state how much money a certain infrastructure needs, or how a council for strategic research should be organised.”


Text: Natalie von der Lehr
Photo: f8 studio

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