Don’t let the knowledge society dilute research quality in Europe’s universities

09 Jan 2013 | Viewpoint

Sweden has a reputation for great research – but policy leaders there are sounding an alarm about a decline in quality. A new study has implications for policy makers across Europe.

In 2010, the Swedish Research Council published a report showing that during the previous 20 years the amount of Swedish research that rated as having a major international impact had undergone a relative decline compared with Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland. These countries are 35 to 40 per cent above world average in terms of high impact research output, an achievement that ranks alongside the US.  In comparison, Sweden’s performance is 15 per cent above world average, while Finland’s performance is 5 per cent above world average.

These bibliometric studies also reveal that high impact research in Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland covers more subject fields, and that the recruitment of young researchers performing at this top level is stronger than in Sweden.

On behalf of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and in collaboration with the Research Council, we made a comparative analysis of the research systems of these countries in order to elucidate why Sweden has a weaker showing in high impact research. The report ‘Fostering breakthrough research: A comparative study’ was published  on 9 December 2012, along with an article in the major Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The report can be downloaded here.

Decline is despite generous R&D funding

It should be noted that the relative decline in Sweden’s research has occurred despite relatively generous national support for R&D. The report identifies universities as the weak link in the Swedish research system, which is an effect of the national science policy during the last 20 years.

One major characteristic of Swedish (and Finnish) universities is that they are much more dependent on short-term external funding of projects than are the more successful universities in the countries of comparison. Swedish universities have more or less developed into “research hotels” for externally-funded projects, a development that has gone much further than in Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where university floor funding of research still dominates. In addition, Swedish universities have less focus on international recruitment, mobility is largely neglected in recruitment and the career system for young researchers is notoriously weak.

Furthermore, Swedish universities are today conglomerates of activities with different missions and goals: research covers everything from cutting edge research at the international level to research for regional development, all post-high school professional education is today organised under the unified university umbrella. Another factor is that collaboration with local communities is put on the same level as education and research.

Although these reforms were put in place as building blocks of a knowledge-based society, they blurred the role and mission of the Swedish universities to the point where groundbreaking research is just one of many roles of a university. Some similar trends are visible in the countries of comparison, although not to the same extent as in Sweden.

Management versus academic leadership

This development has also gradually shifted university leadership towards being administrators of the wide range of assorted functions for which universities are now responsible (management). As a result they are moving away from exercising genuine academic leadership and on ensuring academic renewal through ground breaking research and education of the highest academic standard.

By contrast, the more successful universities in the reference countries emphasise academic leadership at all levels. The principal function of these leaders is to strengthen quality in education and research through recruitment and by providing good career opportunities for young scientists. In Sweden, these functions are in reality very much in the hands of external funders and those individual researchers who are in control of substantial research grants.

Restructure Sweden’s universities

Strengthening high impact research in Sweden is critically dependent on an academic leadership that puts the highest priority on establishing environments for breakthrough research. This can be done through budget allocation and recruitment, and by providing internationally competitive career programmes. With the increased autonomy of Swedish universities, there is now room for organisational and operational restructuring of the universities to enable them to better fulfil their different tasks - and in that process provide the conditions for improving the conditions for high impact research.  Universities that show strength in making such reforms should be entrusted with increased floor funding from the government, to match the situation of the most successful universities in Europe.

It is important that policy-makers at both national and European levels understand that groundbreaking research at the highest level can only be achieved by supporting individuals with novel ideas, providing them with resources and a nurturing research environment. Such support is essential for a knowledge-based society with ambitions to apply breakthrough research to open up for new solutions to deal with the global challenges of today and tomorrow.

Gunnar Öquist is Professor Emeritus, Umeå University and Former Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

Mats Benner is Professor of Science Policy, Lund University

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