Databases, archives, biobanks, space telescopes, and particle accelerators. These are examples of infrastructures that are important resources for research, and are used by many scientists.
For several years, though, such facilities have been short of funds. One reason is that the weak krona exchange rate makes undertakings in international infrastructure more expensive. For a long period, it was therefore unclear whether the call for funding of research infrastructure planned for 2021 could be carried out.
But with the Government’s budget injection of 1.3 billion SEK for research infrastructure, this risk has been avoided. The funds are allocated as 400 million SEK for 2021, and 450 million SEK each year for 2022 and 2023. A one-off investment of 340 million SEK will also be made in the European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund.
“Wonderful, and very positive for the research community! This is a sign that the Government has listened to all the voices telling them that more money is needed for infrastructure,” says Jan-Eric Sundgren.
He chairs the Council for Research Infrastructures (RFI) at the Swedish Research Council, which inventories, prioritises, and makes decisions on infrastructure grants.
Both new and established infrastructures will be able to apply for funding under the next call. It is as yet unclear whether any part of the money shall be targeted towards certain types of infrastructure projects, and, if so, this will be specified in the Government’s research bill later this autumn.
Happy about the initiative
Matilda Ernkrans, Minister for Higher Education and Research, is very happy about the major investment in research, not least in infrastructure.
“Infrastructure is central for enabling us to be part of the very cutting edge of research, and to be a leading research nation,” says Matilda Ernkrans.
She thinks that the pandemic has resulted in a major focus on using research and innovation to restart the economy.
“We are seeing extremely rapid technological development, and the needs are increasing in all research fields. This means higher costs for both higher education institutions and research funding bodies.”
She is aware that it might be a challenge for the research community to handle as much new funding as this already next year.
“We have made the assessment that it is necessary. The business sector has made it known that, due to the pandemic, they might have difficulty investing in Swedish research to the same extent as before. It is then important that we can fill this gap, and make strategic investments at risk of receiving less funding from other sources.”
Bringing together historical databases
One relatively new infrastructure – where researchers have keenly felt the previous financial restrictions – is SwedPop, which is working to bring together five historical population databases.
“We are giving these registers a common coding and common structure. If they can be used together, we will radically improve access to a research resource that is unique to Sweden,” says Elisabeth Engberg, who is responsible for SwedPop and a head of unit at the Centre for Demographic and Ageing Research (CEDAR) at Umeå University.
Sweden has historical population data that cover a large part of the country from the 18th century up to the present time.
“Our population registers are often described as a goldmine, as we have such detailed information about all individuals who have lived in Sweden,” she points out.
Much of the material has been digitised. But as the digitisation has been done by different actors at different times and in different ways, it has been difficult to use them together.
Beneficial to work together
The databases included in SwedPop are POPUM/POPLINK at the Demographic Data Base at Umeå University, Skåne’s economic-demographic database (SEDD) at Lund University, the Gothenburg Population Panel (GOPP) at the University of Gothenburg, and Rotemansarkivet, which contains population data by district from Stockholm. Included are also the censuses carried out throughout the country every ten years, for which the database SweCens is held by the Swedish National Archives.
Elisabeth Engberg has found it very rewarding to work together to create a joint infrastructure.
“We have been aware of each other, but not worked together before. The Swedish Research Council’s model with collaboration in a consortium has been extremely valuable; it has added a lot to our way of working. We work together more effectively than by ourselves, we are creating something even better.”
However, to date they have not been able to implement everything they want. SwedPop applied for a grant with an action plan covering eight years. But – like other applicants – it only received funding for five years, 2018–2022.
Forced to make cuts
“It was a challenge to shrink an eight-year budget to a five-year budget. You can’t just use a paring knife and a shoe-horn; instead, we were forced to prioritise. We therefore had to cut certain measures that were intended to increase scientific quality.”
They also wanted to fill gaps in time and space, such as including all parts of the 1940 census, but there was not enough time in a five-year plan. It would have involved 6 million items to be digitised. This cannot be done by machine; instead, it is largely manual work.
Elisabeth Engberg is now hoping that they might have the chance to apply to continue SwedPop in 2021. She is happy that the new initiative runs for three years, and not just one, as infrastructure has to be built up over the long term.
“It is not just about launching a new resource – instead, it is also about maintaining it and doing the post-launch work, where we maintain a dialogue with the users to make sure that all is working smoothly. You build infrastructure for the future, so it is important that there are resources to conclude and continue operating what you have built up.”
Precondition for research
Jan-Eric Sundgren points out that the ability to fund infrastructure is a precondition for research.
“To make us competitive and able to deliver research results of the highest standard on the international arena, access to infrastructure is incredibly important.”
He establishes that physics, chemistry and medicine dominate, with major facilities such as ESS and MAX IV in Lund and CERN in Geneva. But social sciences and humanities also have major needs, for example to handle large amounts of data.
“My guess is that research into the pandemic will require infrastructure in these fields, such as databases for example.”
As previously mentioned, one reason why funding has been in short supply is exchange rate changes – international expenditure is paid in foreign currencies. If the Swedish krona is weak, the cost will rise.
Other reasons are that Swedish researchers are using infrastructure more and more, that the needs are increasing generally, and that international infrastructures, where Sweden has undertaken to fund a certain percentage, have become ever more expensive.
A report to be published in May 2021 is now looking at how to prioritise and allocate support to various types of infrastructure, and how to handle cost increases that Sweden has no control over.
“We need to review the management, organisation and funding. We spend a lot of money on infrastructure, and this often requires international cooperation. For this reason, it is important for us to do so in a wise and good way for the future,” says Matilda Ernkrans.