Funding revamp shifts focus of science

April 7, 2000

Sweden is restructuring its research network to focus on innovation. Michael de Laine reports on the changes and on the country's key role in arctic studies.

A bill to revamp Swedish research funding promises new organisations and structures - but no new money. Minister of education and science, Thomas Ostros, aims via the bill he laid before parliament on March 22 to ensure that the best research receives the funds it deserves - without increasing the total amount of government cash available.

Ostros said: "Through a radical change in how we organise research financing, we are establishing a good foundation for funding the qualitatively best research - both independent basic research and the very essential problem-oriented research."

Everyone agrees that research must be reorganised to promote Sweden as a top research nation. It needs more dynamic and multi-disciplinary projects, more focus on key fields and more funds for prominent researchers. At the core of the new strategy is an umbrella National Science Council. It replaces the Council for Planning and Coordination of Research, the Council for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Sciences Research Council and the Research Council for Engineering Sciences.

Three new research councils will allocate funding for medicine, the humanities and social sciences, as well as the natural and engineering sciences.

A Research Council for Social Issues and Working Life will take over some tasks of the Council for Work Life Research and the Council for Social Research. It will oversee research on the aged, children, the disabled, ethnic relations and social aspects of alcohol use.

The Research Council for the Environment, Agriculture and Community Planning takes over from the Council for Forestry and Agricultural Research and the Council for Building Research, and assumes some tasks of the National Environmental Protection Agency.

With innovation becoming ever more crucial for economic growth, a new agency will be responsible for commissioned research and the support of innovation.

As well as promoting research and development collaboration, it will focus on information technology and the interplay between people, technology and workplace organisation. The agency assumes the tasks of the Transport and Communications Research Board, some tasks of the Council for Work Life Research and the research funding of the National Board for Industrial and Technical Development.

A research forum will increase collaboration among the various players in research. One task is initiating public debate on issues important to society and the research community, such as ethics or gender issues in research. Ostros will take charge of coordinating government research policy, consolidating the research efforts of the environmental, agricultural, social and industry and commerce ministries.

Remarking on the changes, Lars Ekholm, secretary general of the Association of Swedish Higher Education, said: "The government has tried to concentrate the fragmented organisation and has listened to our arguments for greater researcher influence in the various bodies.

"It is positive that Ostros will be responsible for all research councils and research authorities. This will diminish intra-governmental fights about the territory.

"But our final judgement cannot come until all funds have been distributed," Ekholm continued. "The universities need more funds for research conducted by their faculties and for postgraduate training."

Sverker Gustavsson, political science professor at Uppsala University and under-secretary of state at the ministry of education between 1986 and 1991, said the reforms threatened academic freedom.

"Two mergers are proposed in the sphere of regular research councils governed by researchers themselves. One merger wipes out the distinction between natural and engineering sciences, which I am quite sure is not a good idea for either of them.

"The other combines now separate academic research councils into one comprehensive body with three subdivisions. This is not a good idea in an overall environment of growing contract and commissioned research. The academic identities of these areas must be strengthened through independent research councils, rather than weakened."

Gustavsson said the proposed reforms had not been widely discussed. The ministry prepared the bill without the usual public consultations. The bill is expected to be passed in the summer and to take effect at the turn of the year.

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