Sweden outlines its research ambitions

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Research minister Tobias Krantz talks to Nature about the nation's vision for science.

Tobias Krantz Credit: Swedish Ministry of Education and Research

It is a busy time for science in Sweden. Last year, the government committed to its largest-ever investment in research, with plans to increase annual funding from 25 billion kronor (US$3.52 billion) in 2008 to 30 billion kronor in 2012.

In May, the country claimed victory in the hard-fought battle to host the European Spallation Source (ESS), a €1.4-billion (US$2-billion) facility that will produce beams of neutrons to study the structure and properties of materials.

Then, on 1 July, Sweden took up its six-month presidency of the European Union, giving it an opportunity to shape the research agenda. Just over a week later, at a science-policy conference at Lund University, about 350 scientists and policy-makers called for a new deal on the way that funding is distributed under the framework programmes for research and technological development — Europe's main route for science investment.

The resulting 'Lund Declaration' says that European research should focus more on "grand challenges" and less on the "rigid thematic approaches" of the current funding round. At the conference, the declaration was handed over to Tobias Krantz, who took up the post of Sweden's Minister for Higher Education and Research in June. Nature spoke to Krantz about Sweden's research ambitions, and its vision for Europe.

What are the most pressing issues you face?

Increasing financial support for academic research and strengthening emphasis on quality are very important issues. But more pressing is the future of European research policy, defining the priorities for the next framework programme.

The new thinking about this is that we should take national budgets into account, and not just consider European-level budgets and the framework programmes.

There is an urgent need for more coordination and cooperation but it is also necessary to safeguard academic freedom and pluralism — we do not want to have a situation where everything is dictated from Brussels. Based on the Lund Declaration, I feel that this is an opinion shared by European researchers as well as politicians.

How do you respond to scientists in Sweden who say that too much funding is channelled into large grants, and not enough to individual researchers?

It is important to have different kinds of funding and government spending for research. As politicians, we learn from the scientific community itself what areas should be pursued more than others, which topics should be focused on, which institution or network should have the money. So, I believe there is space for both big networks and for more individual projects.

Some people think strategic funding won't work, but I am confident that this approach will be successful. There is, for example, a growing problem with diabetes in Sweden. Therefore I do not think it is so strange that the government gives an extra injection of money to it, while giving the research community the freedom and independence to direct its own work in the area.

Do you have any plans to save the Institute of Genetics in Lund, which is being disbanded due to financial problems? (see ' Deficit dooms Swedish gene institute' )

I should not comment on this specific event. It is up to the university and its administration to decide how to organize itself and, as a minister, I should not intervene on such aspects.

There are also complaints about the bureaucracy that pervades the management of Swedish research. What's your view?

When I was a scientist myself, I remember complaining about it as well. Of course, the process of applying for funding could be made more transparent and simpler in many aspects. In fact, we increased the funding that goes directly to universities to 1.6 billion kronor — that cuts bureaucracy simply by removing the need to apply for those funds at all.

Relatively few senior foreign scientists consider coming to work in Sweden. Do you see that as a problem and, if so, do you have a plan to tackle it?

This is a very important issue and Sweden still has a lot to do. There is definitely a need to stimulate more available positions at the senior level in Swedish universities, but we have to take measures in different policy areas to make Sweden more attractive. The ESS project may test how Sweden can be effective in recruiting foreign specialists.

How much will the ESS drain Swedish research spending?

We are negotiating the exact final figures, but the original Swedish bid was to fund 30% of the €1.4-billion cost of the ESS. It's a very exciting project because it can show that Sweden is a good country to establish infrastructure and locate important international projects.

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Paterlini, M. Sweden outlines its research ambitions. Nature (2009) doi:10.1038/news.2009.866

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