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Researchers call for debate on future distribution of resources:"Research freedom in danger"

Two woman and a man outdoors in green surroundings
Kristian Pietras, Emma Sparr och Hanna Isaksson. Photo: Kennet Ruona

Where is the debate on the Strut inquiry's proposals and their consequences?
That is the question being asked by the three researchers Kristian Pietras, Hanna Isaksson and Emma Sparr who are particularly worried by one of the proposals.
– An increase in direct government funding at the cost of weakened research councils may mean that research loses its freedom and international competitiveness.

The University is now working on a joint response to the Government inquiry on governance and the allocation of resources for research and education at Swedish higher education institutions, abbreviated as Strut.

One of the key proposals in the inquiry is that external funding to universities should not be greater than direct government funding. To achieve this, it is necessary for the government to introduce new funding, something that is deemed to be unlikely. Instead, it involves transferring money from public research councils to direct government funding.

The Swedish Research Council is the largest public funding body and the only research council located in the same ministry as the inquiry (the Ministry of Education and Research), which is why this redistribution is expected to have such an impact on the Swedish Research Council.

"Grants from the Swedish Research Council may be cut by 30 to 50 per cent. And we have not been informed on how prioritisations will be made if, instead, these funds are to be distributed directly within the University", says Kristina Pietras, professor of molecular medicine at the Faculty of Medicine.

The researchers want to defend the free project funding where the research issues are formulated by the researchers and evaluated by experts in open competition. The applications are assessed by both national and international experts in a peer-review process with clear quality standards.

"Most people know how the Swedish Research Council functions and trust their review process. According to the proposal in Strut, the increased direct government funding would not need to be allocated to the universities based on quality criteria. There is a risk here for both lack of transparency and quality", says Emma Sparr, professor of physical chemistry at the Faculty of Science.  

She also says that the inquiry seems to be of the understanding that a redistribution of funds from public research councils would solve problems with co- and joint financing.  

"We question this given that funding bodies such as the Swedish Research Council do not require any co- or joint financing", she says.  

Hanna Isaksson, professor of biomedical engineering at the Faculty of Engineering, points out that the direct government funding has actually increased in recent years.

"However, that has actually led more to an increased quantity of research, with more employees - than to an increase in quality", she says.  

The researchers are primarily against the predetermined relationship between direct government funding and external funding.  

"We are not against increased direct government funding in itself – but not at the expense of funds for free research that are quality-driven and not politically controlled."

They propose another possible source for an increase in direct government funding, which is to use parts of the profits from Akademiska Hus.

"They are larger than the Swedish Research Council's total budget for project funds", they say.  

Possibly the most notable proposal in Strut is to combine the two direct government funding allocations for education and research into just one grant, and to allow the universities to decide how it is to be distributed.  Transparency is at risk here too, say the researchers in Lund.

The agreement model proposed in the inquiry, in which the universities and the Government Offices of Sweden negotiate the aims of the university's activities, is also something the researchers in Lund consider controversial.  

"That governance model places great demands on expertise and resources for the negotiating parties and opens up to political management of the universities' activities", say the researchers.  

Otherwise, they believe there are a number of good proposals in the 400-page Strut inquiry that was presented in February after many years of work by the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions, SUHF.  

"The inquiry raises important issues and problems and the intention is for it to work toward a system built on trust and collegiality. These intentions are good but many of the proposed solutions are not and we do not see how they support freedom and quality of research", they say unanimously.  

However, the broadening of the term collaboration is welcomed as it includes more forms of exchange between researchers and society than previously. Also, the proposal to combine public research financing, which is currently distributed across many ministries, is positive given that it improves the clarity in the distribution of research funds, say the researchers.  

The most important thing right now, according to the researchers, is to initiate the debate and discussions. They warn that time is running out and the proposals need to reach the research groups and be discussed in lunchrooms.

"This affects all of us and could have significant consequences for our organisation", says Hanna Isaksson.

The researchers have received the internal statements from their faculties that all raise fears around Strut and its consequences.  

Tim Ekberg, head of the planning office, explains that all faculties agree on the need to increase direct government funding. The question is how. The joint statement that the University board is considering states that the Government should first investigate the possibility of transferring funds from Akademiska Hus to direct government funding, as well as from sector-specific councils.

"LU advises against funds being moved from the Swedish Research Council", says Tim Ekberg.











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