Autonomy concerns as Sweden consolidates research funders

More than 20 public agencies could be turned into just three, but sector leaders are wary of the government’s intentions

July 17, 2023
Woman relaxing on jetty and looking at a row of boat houses in Sweden to illustrate Autonomy concerns as Sweden consolidates research funders
Source: Getty Images

Sweden must consolidate its “plethora” of research funding agencies if it wants universities to deliver for society, sector leaders said, but reformers must provide reassurance that the process will not lead to tighter political control.

Sweden, a country of just over 10 million people, has more than 20 public agencies that fund research, many with their own application and reporting systems. “You have to rely on 10 different funders to keep your lab going,” Erik Renström, vice-chancellor of Lund University, told Times Higher Education.

In 2009, Lund lent its name to a declaration committing Sweden and Europe to undertaking research that addresses “grand challenges” such as climate change, ageing, security and pandemics. But more than a decade later, say experts, Sweden lacks the funding system to do so. Professor Renström cited quantum computing as one area where Sweden’s agencies were “too small and too scattered” to muster the means for world-saving work.

Since September 2022, Ingrid Pettersson, chair of Lund’s board and former head of the Swedish Research Council for Sustainable Development, has been looking at how the country’s funding system could be made more effective.

Her final take is due to be delivered in September, but early ideas include consolidating down to three new mega-agencies: the Swedish Research Agency, the Swedish Agency for Strategic Research and the Swedish Innovation Agency.

Professor Renström supports the idea. For him, Sweden’s “plethora” of agencies creates “really significant” administration for laboratory heads, and the current system “more represents the funders’ perspectives rather than those that will actually do the job”.

But two other sector leaders – Astrid Söderbergh Widding, rector of Stockholm University, and Hans Ellegren, secretary general of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – have warned against too much outside influence on the direction of research, arguing that “science’s contribution to society cannot be ordered”.

For Professor Renström, putting all “strategic” funding under the remit of a single body would protect it from political interference, “creating a more chaste distance between politics and academia”, citing the recent furore over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ ending of funding for international development research.

To help Ms Pettersson, the government also commissioned the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to consider the reform options for the Swedish system. One of the authors of that report, Carthage Smith, told THE that the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic had reframed the debate around the top-down steering of research.

“What’s changed now is just the urgency and the scale of the societal challenges that we face,” he said, adding that a stronger focus on mission-driven, challenge-based work was “not at all a threat to academic freedom”.

Sweden has Rise, an institute that brings together the government, academia and industry to work on innovation, but as it lacks the scale of Germany’s Fraunhofer Society, the country is “dependent” on its universities to lead challenge-driven work, Dr Smith said.

That means that for now, Sweden is unable to meet the grand challenges it helped to identify in 2009. “They’re not really doing that,” he said. “The Stockholm Resilience Institute is known worldwide – it’s leading in this field – but they haven’t expanded on that.”

Some are yet to be convinced that consolidation is the answer, or even that a clear problem has been identified. Among them is Maria Thuveson, director of the Swedish Research Council, the country’s largest funder.

“It looks good on paper, but in reality, it’s really hard to separate those,” she said, referring to the proposed split between “strategic” research and other scholarship, also noting the “enormous cost” of shutting down agencies mid-grant flow.

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