Henrik Cederquist. Photo: Niklas Björling

During the spring, the Swedish Research Council (VR), FORMAS, Forte and Vinnova were asked to develop proposals for a new model for the quality-based distribution for research and doctoral education, based on the Government Bill for Research and Research Infrastructure and in consultation with universities and other institutions of higher education. The new model is intended to replace the previous indicator-based distribution model, which relies on bibliometrics and the ability to attract external research grants. The Swedish Research Council has led the work and the four councils jointly submitted a proposal for a new model to the Swedish Government on 31/5 2021.  

According to the proposal, institutions of higher education will have the possibility to submit applications for funding for up to five profile areas. Applications will be processed by the Swedish Research Council and according to the proposal, different fixed amounts will be awarded in proportion to the overall grading. The amounts are in the range of SEK 5-20 million/year for six years. The applications must include descriptions of the general strategic work, the selection of the profile areas and renewal and quality assurance processes. The institution of higher education is also expected to describe the activities in the profile area and how it plans to further develop it. It should be possible to submit proposals for already established (strong) profile areas, as well as for areas under development. In both cases, the development perspective is important. It is expected that the assessment panel will consist of 6-8 international members with a broad range of experience from strategic management and development work, evaluation of scientific quality, and the quality of the interaction and collaboration with society. The panel will also, according to the proposal, have the possibility to engage external evaluators in specific scientific areas. The panel has a challenging task as it is expected to cover all fields of science and also to have the possibility to assess other types of profiling applications that, which, according to the proposal, may include efforts not directly related to scientific areas.  Examples include profiling work with recruitment and qualification processes, and profiling based on (research) infrastructure. The panel will give out “grades” 1-3 (where 3 is highest) within the following three areas: (i), the quality of the educational institution’s strategic work and its linkage to the choice of profile area, as well as the development opportunities within the profile area; (ii), scientific quality; and (iii), the quality of the interaction and collaboration with society.

Joint efforts between institutions of higher education will be possible and are encouraged, but this is not a requirement. If more than one institution collaborates together on a profile area, as far as I understand it, they must all submit a profiling application. Multidisciplinary profile areas are welcomed, but the proposal does not indicate any advantage over those that are within a single scientific discipline. The Government Bill for Research and Research Infrastructure stressed the importance of linking research and education, and the research committee’s proposals set out target images for a good profile area that states: “The profile area is to be developed in a knowledge environment of high-quality that includes research, educational activities, and interaction and collaborations with the community-at-large.” I am certain that the connection with education will be important, however so far there are no indications of how such aspects will be handled in the evaluations. 

The research funding agencies are, similarity to the universities, deeply concerned by the short implementation period – the new model is intended to be used for the allocation of funds as early as 2023 – and propose a planning period. According to the proposal, this would mean that institutions of higher education would indicate in which areas they plan to apply for profiling early in 2022, so that the councils, based on this information, could start to recruit evaluators. Calls for full proposals will be made after the summer of 2022 – there will be five such proposals for SU as a whole. 

The Government Bill for Research and Research Infrastructure states that at least SEK 500 million will be distributed based on the profiling applications from 2023. The basic grant for research to the sector as a whole was temporarily strengthened by SEK 500 million for 2021 – the part of that money allocated to our Faculty at SU amounts to just over SEK 18 million and has already been strategically distributed via a decision by the Faculty Board. In addition, the Bill stated that the base allocation for research would be increased permanently by SEK 720 million from 2021 and then increased further in the following years. If a minimum of SEK 500 million is now to be used for profiling financing, this means that our part of the “permanent” increase, which also amounts to just over SEK 18 million, will only be given for the years 2021 and 2022. Then later, that increase will be withdrawn to fund the profile areas. This will of course be similar for other institutions of higher education. 

I have made an attempt here to briefly describe the new model proposed by the research councils and now turn to making some reflections. It is a very far-reaching proposal, as it steers away from the manner in which Stockholm University and our faculty have worked to build strong, internationally competitive and attractive research environments. We do this by means of public broad calls for teaching positions and allow those recruited in fierce international competition to influence the research focus and breadth via their own personal interests and ability. We do not steer the research development process from the faculty or university leadership, but rather our research environments develop spontaneously over time as new issues and challenges emerge and develop in an international context. Sometimes, however, more central targeted efforts and measures are made to strengthen certain subjects or disciplines – recent examples are the reorganisation of the activities in analytical chemistry and the establishment of a centre for sustainable chemistry – SUCCeSS. We have also made significant investments that have already shown success in the subject of neurochemistry and for a world-leading solar telescope. However, the vast majority of our strategic work is done via recruitment of teachers and researchers.  

One risk that I see with the proposal is that it gives so much weight to societal challenges so that profile areas without a strong and very clear link to these specific challenges have low chances to get funded. This risks impairing the conditions for basic research, which is important for Stockholm University and also for the society as a whole. The new model will mean that (hopefully) five profile areas within Stockholm University will receive funding, in an amount of up to SEK 20 million over the course of six years, but today we have 16 profile areas and the activities that end up outside (which are most actually) will be in a worse position than with the previous indicator-based system. The fact that research contributes to solving societal challenges is without question a good thing, but if a clear link to these becomes a requirement in practice, it will inhibit the diversity of research over the long term, which I do not think will benefit the goal of creating more internationally strong research environments in Sweden. 

So, what is the next step? We must continue to develop strong proposals for interesting and attractive profile areas according to the conditions described above. The faculty board has appointed a working group consisting of the dean, the vice dean, the section deans, the chair of the faculty committee for undergraduate studies and the vice section deans to coordinate the profiling work.