Euros, US dollars and Swiss francs – these are the main currencies that Sweden uses to pay its contribution to large space telescopes, particle accelerators, databases and other international research infrastructures. When the Swedish currency decreases in value, these costs increase correspondingly.
“The consequence is that we have less money for our national infrastructures; that is where the money must come from,” establishes Björn Halleröd, Secretary General of the Council for Research Infrastructures (RFI) at the Swedish Research Council. “If the krona had remained at the 2013 level, we would have had around 120–130 million SEK more to invest in national infrastructure today. That is almost twice the amount of funding we have been able to allocate under this year’s call.”
More time at international facilities
But there is also a more positive reason why costs have increased, he points out. Swedish researchers are successful internationally, and have been allocated more time at several facilities, such as the ILL neutron source in Grenoble, France, and the XFEL free electron laser facility in Schenefeld, Germany.
“Another reason for the increased costs is that there is usually some kind of annual upwards adjustment of fees in the contracts for these facilities. But the exchange rate changes are the main reason for the pressured situation we now have,” says Björn Halleröd.
For this reason, many fewer applications than usual were successful when the Council for Research Infrastructures made its decision on support for national infrastructures in September. Facilities such as the Swedish solar telescope in La Palma, Spain and the neutrino telescope IceCube in the Antarctic did not get their funding renewed, despite being assessed as prominent and urgent.
“These are the type of facilities that would without doubt have been funded if we had had the money. We were forced to draw the line far too high up in the list of priorities this year,” says Björn Halleröd.
A form of capital destruction
What will happen to the infrastructures that were turned down is uncertain, and depends ultimately on the host universities.
“We have a good dialogue with them, but it is a difficult situation. Their finances will be under pressure too, of course. For Swedish research as a whole, it is of course less important who provides the funding, as long as the funding is provided. But when you have made major investments, and then can’t afford the running costs – that is a form of capital destruction.”
Three major facilities – the CERN particle accelerator, the ESS neutron scattering facility, and the MaxIV X-ray facility – represent around half of the expenditure of RFI. When Sweden applied to host ESS, critical voices were heard to say that the facility would “steal” too much funding from other research. Were they actually right?
“No, I have difficulty seeing it that way. The money for ESS was paid out via RFI, but it would not have been included in our budget unless ESS had been there,” says Björn Halleröd.
Fundamentally, ESS was an investment by the Swedish government, and probably one of the best investments that could be made from a socio-economic point of view, he emphasises.
“Sweden is paying less than half of the construction cost of a very advanced facility on Swedish soil, which will benefit both research and economic growth.”
Doubtful whether the 2021 call will take place
Cutting back other international commitments because the krona exchange rate has made them more expensive is not a desirable alternative either, Halleröd considers.
“They are very important facilities, and there is great pressure from the research community for us to take part. Trying to put a brake on increased Swedish use of certain facilities would also be unfortunate. When an increase occurs, this is after all because Swedish researchers in the field in question have been particularly competitive.”
RFI’s next call for national infrastructure is planned for 2021.
“It is very doubtful whether it will take place. There is no point issuing a call if there is no money to distribute. At the same time, I would say that the need for research infrastructure is now greater than ever. So of course this is a serious situation.”
Infrastructure is crucial when choosing countries
Reducing the investment in national research infrastructure for cost reasons is a short-term solution that causes long-term problems, according to Sanna Koskiniemi, Vice Chair of the Young Academy of Sweden and a microbiology researcher at Uppsala University.
“We are very worried by the Swedish Research Council’s signalling that it will not be possible to continue supporting new national research infrastructure, and perhaps not even to maintain existing infrastructure,” she says.
“It is a catastrophe for Swedish research. For junior researchers, access to good infrastructure is often crucial when choosing which country to establish themselves in. Sweden will find it more and more difficult to recruit the best junior researchers.”
“Research infrastructure is becoming ever more important for research, and the discussion should be about expansion rather than cutbacks,” says Sanna Koskiniemi.
“The reason infrastructure has become more important is both technological development and other changes to the research world, but also the ever stronger emphasis on open science. Making raw data available is, of course, a sound development, but it does make demands and entails new costs.”
Return any profit to the research community!
Sanna Koskiniemi thinks that the situation that has arisen must be solved with new funding for research infrastructure.
“Otherwise we would be wasting money – if we have invested in infrastructure that we still need, but are not keeping.”
But of course it is difficult to say where the money should come from.
“I am absolutely not saying that the funding for project grants should be cut. But perhaps it would be reasonable if some of the profit made by Akademiska Hus was returned to the research community? Irrespective of where the money comes from, it is important that the support is allocated via open, transparent calls, as RFI has done so far. So that we fund the best infrastructure initiatives.”
Björn Halleröd and Sanna Koskiniemi took part in panel discussions at the Swedish Research Council’s conference Forskningspolitiska dagen, which was held on 20 November in Stockholm.