Swedish top-tier research in need of reinforcement

Sweden has a long tradition of being a high-ranking knowledge nation, harbouring several internationally prominent research and knowledge environments. But something has changed. During the last twenty years, the development of research with high international impact has been weaker in Sweden than in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. This is a warning sign of utmost importance, and it is high time to implement decisive measures to turn this development around if Sweden is to remain a research nation of the highest rank.

Despite the fact that Sweden distinguishes itself by relatively generous budget conditions for research, Swedish universities do not perform at the same level as the universities in the reference countries. This is due to a number of systemic reasons: policy decisions at the national level, the manner in which systems for funding have developed, and university managements that do not adequately prioritise the very highest international academic quality.

In order to regain a position at the cutting edge, Sweden has to:
• Let policy decisions about research and agreements with trade unions for universities be guided by the ambition to improve the quality of Swedish research.
• Strengthen the long-term funding conditions for researchers with new bold ideas, in order to enable free and challenging research with a large potential for renewal.
• Prioritise an academic leadership with high academic legitimacy and bold visions when recruiting leaders for various levels within universities.
• Reintroduce a system with fully paid faculty positions for professors and lecturers, and basic funding that permits risky long-term research. In the long run, funding of faculty positions with external resources ought to be discontinued.
• Strengthen the career opportunities for young researchers by introducing a transparent career system with tenure-track positions and research funding at an adequate level.
• Recruit internationally as well as nationally for all faculty positions at all levels.

International experience shows that a reform of university research along the principles outlined above can enable universities to make significant progress over a ten-year period and even to position themselves at the international cutting edge. The proposals entail a profound systemic shift and it is uncertain whether universities alone can bring this about. The Government should be prepared to provide targeted economic support to implement these changes.

The unabbreviated Academy statement is enclosed to this Press release, and is also available on the Royal Swedish Academy website, www.kva.se/en. The Academy statement is based upon the Academy report “Fostering breakthrough research: A comparative study”, authored by Gunnar Öquist, Professor Emeritus of Plant Physiology at Umeå University and former Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and Mats Benner, Professor in Science Policy Studies at Lund University.

The unabbreviated Academy statement (PDF)