Henrik Cederquist
Henrik Cederquist. Foto: Niklas Björling

A new action plan for continued developments of strong environments for research and teaching

The most important strategic decisions taken by the university, the area, and the faculty are those related to the recruitment and promotion of teachers, a collective term for associate senior lecturers, senior lecturers and professors. Pursuant to the Swedish Higher Education Ordinance, an associate senior lecturer has the right to apply for promotion to senior lecturer and a senior lecturer employed at Stockholm University has the right to apply for promotion to professor. The skills of our teaching staff and, not least, their development potential as teachers and researchers will be crucial to the future strength of the faculty’s research environments and the quality of the education we offer. The Science Academic Area has been successful in building strong academic environments within which internationally leading research is conducted, which in turn provides excellent opportunities for attracting highly qualified candidates when we announce future teachers positions. When recruiting and promoting teachers, the faculty values both teaching expertise and research expertise. 

Aside from recruitment and promotion, the organisational conditions provided for education and research are crucial. Smaller departments with few teachers may struggle to find candidates for essential academic leadership positions and their room for strategic actions may be limited. The Board of Science has therefore given the heads of the Department of Organic Chemistry and the Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry the task to prepare a proposal for how a merger of these departments, by 1 January 2025, should be organised. 

Review of the academic area’s education profile

During the spring, the Board of Science appointed a working group to review the academic area’s education profile. The working group’s initial terms of reference are to – and here I quote directly – “perform an external analysis and compare the [faculty’s] range of programmes and courses with those offered at other universities in Sweden. The analysis may in part make comparisons with other higher education institutions, compare student groups and applicants per place, based on attitude surveys (such as Ungdomsbarometern and surveys conducted by the Communications Office) and other available data”. Furthermore, the working group is to “conduct an internal inventory of areas in which we might advantageously offer other types of courses and programmes, such as Degree of Master of Science in Engineering or lifelong learning transition and retraining”. This assignment also includes a number of additional tasks intended to further enhance teaching quality and to attract more students. I consider the latter to be a high-priority task for several reasons. Firstly, we see from surveys that our former students have successful careers in industry, the private sector, public authorities and the public sector in general. Secondly, we have a large number of skilled teachers with strong active engagements in research. This teaching capacity is not yet used to its full potential today. At Stockholm university, undergraduate students in science and math will have the opportunity to perform their bachelor and master thesis projects with connections to leading research in their field of study.

The action plan adopted by the Board of Science at its last meeting before the summer has 40 measures, several of which are related to student recruitment. I would just like to mention two of them: ”Communicate Stockholm University’s status as a leading research university in order to strengthen our reputation and recruitment of students and staff” and ”Complete the recruitment of a faculty communications officer and strengthen collaboration between the Information Committee and the First- and Second-Cycle Education Committee to increase student recruitment”. Together, these measures highlight a clear connection between research, education and student recruitment, yet the Science Academic Area accounts for over 50 per cent of Stockholm University’s research but only 14 per cent of first- and second-cycle courses and programmes. One measure already taken to increase the inflow of students is the establishment of the new Master's Programme in Biostatistics and Data Science. This programme will be run within the Stockholm Trio university alliance and has been developed in close collaboration with Karolinska Institutet (KI) and KTH Royal Institute of Technology. The programme is planned to start in the autumn semester 2024. In the long-term, the Science Academic Area’s continued engagement in the formations of educational programs for pre-university teachers in mathematics and science is important for the quality of teaching in schools and for future recruitment of students in these subjects to the University. 

The Action Plan for the Science Academic Area 2023–2024 is presented in full here. Among the points directly related to research is the intention to further strengthen support for work on applications for external funding, an area in which the faculty often enjoys considerable success at both national and international level, but where there also is room for improvement, for example when it comes to ERC grants at starting, consolidator and advanced levels.

Skilled staff and increased recruitment to our PhD-programmes

I have already emphasised the importance of skilled colleagues in the teaching category but we also have a large number of proficient researchers, postdoctoral fellows, technicians and administrators with varying specialisations, all of whom are indispensable to the organisation. While training to be researchers, doctoral students are already contributing strongly to research and participating in teaching activities as, for example, teaching assistants and laboratory assistants. Third-cycle courses and programmes are of course central to our operations and graduates with a third-cycle qualification and scientific approach are increasingly in demand in society as a whole. The number of doctoral students at the faculty has been declining for a number of years, a trend that has been noticed also by the University Board. If this decline continues, there is a risk that the academic environments become subcritical and less dynamic. A number of measures have already been taken in order to prevent this from happening. The recently adopted action plan states that we are to: “Stimulate the recruitment of doctoral students and take advantage of the opportunities offered by external investments, such as the Wallenberg Initiative Material Science for Sustainability (WISE), Data-Driven Life Science (DDLS) Fellows and the Wallenberg Initiative on Networks and Quantum Information (WINQ)”. All of these initiatives offer significant opportunities to recruit doctoral students in the respective fields. The challenge is to reinforce the funding of third-cycle studies outside these fields and beyond the operations that qualify for central government funding as Strategic Research Areas – the so-called SFO:s.

Funding of research infrastructure

Like Sweden’s other higher education institutions, Stockholm University is faced with significant challenges when it comes to financing, operation and development of research infrastructures. On an overall level, there may be a risk that increasing costs for the operation of MAX IV will leave little room for other, equally important, national infrastructures. Here, we hope that the government will decide to fund the operation of MAX IV outside the budget for other research infrastructures from 2025 and on. This view has support from a number of research-intensive higher educational institutions and other major stakeholders. Another challenge is posed by existing agreements on international infrastructure, where unfavourable exchange rates for the Swedish krona are limiting the Swedish Research Council’s ability to fund national infrastructure. It has become clear that there is a significant funding gap for infrastructure and that many facilities that are entitled to apply for funding may face considerable cuts. A reduction of 50 per cent, which has been presented an alternative, would limit the infrastructure services that can be provided very seriously. Given these challenges, it is nice to see that all four applications for technology platforms submitted by Stockholm University to the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation’s WISE programme are included in the investment plan approved by the WISE board. This opens up the possibility that Stockholm University will be awarded grants of almost SEK 140 million for equipment for AI-supported design, synthesis and environmental analysis of new sustainable materials, infrastructure for time-resolved studies of surface reactions under atmospheric pressure, a new transmission electron microscope with AI-supported analysis, and a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy instrument to analyse solid materials with high magnetic field strengths, the latter is a collaboration with KTH. If realised, these potential investments will strengthen Stockholm University’s research in the Science Academic Area in the corresponding fields.

Common goals 

What we refer to as operational support, “verksamhetsstöd” in Swedish, remains available within departments and centres and at the central university level. Although the Office of Science is part of University Administration, its main task is to provide much-appreciated support to the Dean and the Board of Science, as well as to departments and equivalent organisational units. Departments and centres have varying levels of inhouse technical and administrative support adapted to their operations and size. Additional university-wide operational support is also available in areas such as finance, legal matters, property management, IT, communications, human resources and student issues. Cooperation with the central University Administration is sometimes perceived as challenging by teachers and researchers. The decisive factor here is to create the conditions for the administration and teachers and other staff mainly engaged in research and education to share perspectives and common objectives. In this way it will be possible to build and to strengthen mutual trust. Recently, important steps have been taken in this direction, including a project to optimise the use of premises with a clear common goal: to reduce premises costs. However, we have some way to go before all difficulties in these types of collaborations have been overcome. We hope that the following measure in the action plan will bring us closer to our goal in the near future: “Together with University Administration, strengthen mutual trust between the faculty and University Administration to strengthen the administrative support provided to the science academic area”. 

But now, summer is coming and we should put challenges, measures and action plans aside for a while. I hope that you all will have pleasant and relaxing summer holidays! 

Have a nice summer! 

Henrik Cederquist