Göran Gustafsson med eget litet propellerplan Göran Gustafsson (photo) founded the Göran Gustafsson Foundations in 1986. He is one of many successful entrepreneurs who set up private research foundations.

The non-celebrities among Swedish research funding bodies

Svenska 2021-09-01

Sweden has many private foundations that fund research, but who are really the persons behind the funding? And how do the foundations allocate their prizes and grants? Curie has taken a closer look at some of the foundations.

In comparison to lots of other countries, Sweden has relatively many foundations that fund research.

“It is like a third sector within research funding, besides the government and the EU,” says Anna Wetterbom, newly appointed MD of the Ragnar Söderberg Foundation.

She describes the foundations as the non-celebrities in the system.

“They aren’t mentioned all that often, perhaps precisely because there are many of them, and because each one is often fairly small.”

Although ‘small’ does not in fact apply to all. For example, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation hands out more research money every year than any other Swedish funding body apart from the Swedish Research Council.

Anna Wetterbom actually used to work at the Swedish Research Council, and can see that the foundations have some advantages compared to other funding bodies. The assets and the foundation rules provide a long-term approach, at the same time as the boards can make quick decisions if they want, she thinks.

“I would say that this is a unique feature of the foundations. The model provides long-term funding, and if you want to make a special initiative, it can be done fairly quickly,” she says, and compares this to the governmental research councils, which are governed by the national budget and slower political processes.

Have paid out one billion SEK

Many of the foundations were established by successful businessmen, who wanted to do something to benefit society. Here, Ragnar Söderberg is a good example. He was born in Stockholm in 1900, and ran businesses together with his brother, Torsten Söderberg, who also has a foundation in this name.

The assets of the foundations consist of shares in the investment company Ratos, which was founded by the two brothers in the 1930s.

Anna Wetterbom tells us that Ragnar Söderberg had a connection to the world of research through his strong links to the Stockholm School of Economics, where he studied. It was almost self-evident that his foundation would support research in economics, but the foundation also funds research in medicine and jurisprudence.

In total, the foundation has paid out almost one billion SEK since it was founded in 1960, and the target group is researchers at the beginning of their careers.

“We want to fund the next generation’s most prominent researchers, and make a considerable difference to those who receive grants from the foundation,” says Anna Wetterbom.

The Ragnar Söderberg Foundation does not give out scholarships or prizes; instead, it issues open calls based on the board’s strategy. The applications received are peer reviewed by highly qualified researchers, and that is important, Anna Wetterbom explains.

“Our goal is to fund the best research, and our quality-assured review process means this is guaranteed.”

New chance for researchers who have been refused an ERC grant

Besides its own calls, Ragnar Söderberg Foundation also gives out grants via the Swedish Foundations Starting Grant. This is an initiative run in collaboration with four other Swedish research funding bodies – the Erling-Persson Family Foundation, Kemp Foundations, Olle Engkvist Byggmästare Foundation, and Riksbankens Jubileumsfond.

The initiative is aimed at junior researchers who have applied for a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), but who despite being awarded top marks for their applications have still been refused due to budget limitations.

“The Swedish Research Council will intervene and fund some of these top-ranked projects, and then we intervene and fund a few more. We are really pleased to be able to do this. The European Research Council carries out very good peer review, so if you have been awarded top marks by them, then it is very probable that your research project will be innovative and world-leading,” says Anna Wetterbom.

Want to support the best research

The principle that the best research will receive funding is also highlighted by other foundations. The way in which this is ensured varies slightly, however. The Göran Gustafsson Foundations are aimed at researchers at the beginning of their careers, just like the Ragnar Söderberg Foundation. The Göran Gustafsson Foundations consist of two foundations, with slightly differing focuses. One is aimed at researchers at Uppsala University and KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Junior researchers can apply direct, and the grant recipients are chosen by the deputy vice-chancellors and professors in the fields of engineering physics and human biology.

For the second foundation, all Swedish universities can nominate candidates within the prize subjects of mathematics, physics, chemistry, molecular biology and medicine. The nominees are evaluated by members of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (KVA), who recommend the best candidate in each prize subject.

KVA has five representatives on the board of the Göran Gustafsson Foundations – one for each prize subject – and the board makes the final decision on who will receive the prizes.  They usually go along with the KVA recommendations, Per Gustafsson, Board Chairman, tells us. He is the son of the founder, Göran Gustafsson.

Per Gustafsson describes his father as a successful entrepreneur, who started out with nothing.

“He grew up in a small village in the north, under very tough circumstances. He started out working in forestry, and eventually managed to get into the property sector.”

At the end of the 1950s, Göran Gustafsson began establishing shopping centres. He built department stores in Gällivare, Kiruna, Boden and Piteå. Later on, he moved to Stockholm, where he continued in business.

“Things went well. He made a lot of money,” establishes Per Gustafsson.

The family manages the money

In total, the Göran Gustafsson Foundations hand out just over 40 million SEK per year. If Göran Gustafsson had not set up the foundations, this money would have gone to the family instead.

“We could have had a lot of fun with it,” Per Gustafsson admits. “Now, we have the pleasure of administering his foundations instead, and managing the money, so that we have continuity.”

He tells us that his father had great respect for research and science.

“He himself only had seven years of schooling, but he read a lot and was particularly interested in astronomy.”

It is probably the case that Swedish foundations give out more money to medicine and natural sciences than to humanities and social sciences, Anna Wetterbom believes. Not least because the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation is so large, and it only gives grants to researchers in medicine, natural sciences and engineering sciences.

Review panels decide

You could ask the question whether private foundations give individual persons an unhealthy amount of influence over what research is done, but Per Gustafsson and Anna Wetterbom do not think so.

“The founders did, of course, have an important influence over the foundation. They decided which research fields should be prioritised, but the specific projects that receive funding today is decided by our review panels,” says Anna Wetterbom.

A problem could perhaps arise if a foundation was set up to support research that is not serious, Per Gustafsson argues.

“Theoretically, you could, for example, imagine a situation where someone who is interested in racial biology sets up a prize for likeminded people,” he says, but adds that he does not know of any such case.

Nor would such a foundation achieve any particularly elevated status in the research community, he reasons.

Challenge when subject areas overlap

Both Per Gustafsson and Anna Wetterbom believe that their foundations have good regulations that still work well, even if quite a few decades have now passed since they were written. They also emphasise that the rules are always interpreted in the here and now.

Per Gustafsson has noticed that it is sometimes a bit difficult to draw clear dividing lines between the different subjects that his father indicated.

“The division was clearer in his days, but it’s not a great problem. It would be worse if a subject area disappeared entirely, but it would then be up to the board to solve it,” he says.

He thinks that his father would have been pleased with the role the foundation has today. Both he and Anna Wetterbom can see that, just like when the foundations were set up, there is a great need for support targeted specifically at researchers who are at the beginning of their careers. Per Gustafsson believes that his father would be proud of how his money is being used.

“He didn’t want to sponsor anyone who was already a Nobel Prize winner; instead, the goal was to support researchers who are fighting to succeed, just like he himself did at the beginning of his career.”

Text: Charlie Olofsson