Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: January 2018

Good research – everyone’s responsibility

(Original Swedish post published 30 January.)

Today we have appointed a new Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Good Research Practice. Stefan Eriksson has long taught on and taken an active interest in issues of research ethics and will now assume a more prominent role in preventive efforts at the University. Good research demands good research practice. The University’s risk analysis has identified a loss of confidence in research as a significant risk. We must take responsibility ourselves, both for detecting and dealing with deficiencies and for preventive action in the sphere of quality and research ethics. We must persistently promote an internal culture that includes an ongoing discussion of research ethics issues. When something goes wrong, we must have a clear, legally certain system to manage complaints, both at university level and nationally. The establishment of a national authority by no means absolves the scholarly community or individual institutions of responsibility. On the contrary.

Since the Macchiarini case, higher education and research institutions around the country have experienced increased complaints of misconduct. To a great extent, the interest of society at large in research misconduct has been beneficial and has prompted more intensive internal discussions on research ethics at higher education institutions. The issue of confidence in research has also become a political issue and Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson recently announced plans for a new government authority to manage complaints of misconduct. The previous week, a sudden decision was announced authorising government research funding bodies to freeze grants during misconduct investigations. Here, however, it is important to consider the consequences. Research grants often support several researchers. This means there is a risk of affecting third parties and ultimately entire areas of research.

In the light of accumulated experience of cases of misconduct, it is clear that several areas need to be considered to achieve the result we want: to eliminate cheating in research, while respecting due process and without hurting innocent people. It is important that politicians, public authorities and research funding bodies also act responsibly. To be sure, dealing with suspicions of misconduct is a matter of protecting the credibility and integrity of research, but it must be possible to do this without wrecking research careers and, in the worst case, entire research fields. The consequences of decisions therefore require careful consideration. Here are some important issues to bear in mind:

  1. Investigate promptly. Currently, the process takes too long. It is unsatisfactory when an offence becomes time-barred because the investigation has taken too long. And it is not acceptable that an innocent person should be forced to endure prolonged exposure to suspicion from the community.
  2. Investigate carefully. This requires taking account of all the individuals involved in a joint project. Research is often a cooperative exercise conducted by a large or small group, with different individuals taking responsibility for different aspects. If all are tarred with the same brush when one has done wrong, the result is a work environment characterised by suspicion and control instead of trust and collaboration. In that kind of environment, creativity wanes.
  3. Reasonable consequences. The consequences must be reasonable based on what has happened, and must be decided by the right authority. The combined ‘penalties’ from disciplinary boards, research funding bodies, the scholarly community and the media may otherwise grow out of proportion to the fault committed. As mentioned above, the consequences for third parties of the government’s decision to allow research funding bodies to freeze grants during an investigation need to be studied.
  4. Consider degrees on the scale. The current system is a blunt instrument, it is a question of either/or, black or white. A careless unintentional mistake is regarded as misconduct, just like deliberate fabrication of false research results. In our opinion, the possibility of assessing degrees of seriousness should be discussed.
  5. Differentiate between misconduct and scholarly disputes. Being suspected of and investigated for misconduct is a great strain and often takes place in the full glare of publicity, since the media have quite reasonably shown great interest in these issues. But the open digital landscape can leave an individual defenceless, so that they risk having their name dragged through the mud before their guilt has been proved. It is important that accusations of misconduct do not become a substitute for thorough – and critical – scholarly discussion. Sometimes suspicions ultimately turn out to be a matter of scholarly disputes or, in the worst case, personal conflicts. If accusations of misconduct are used as a weapon in debate, we have taken a wrong turning. Then scholarly scrutiny and discussion turn into law, and then what becomes of science?
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Steningevik 2018

(Original Swedish post published 24 January.)

The annual meeting between Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson and university vice-chancellors, organised by the Swedish Higher Education Authority, has just ended. As usual, it took place at Steningevik. Obviously we are heading for an election, and the Minister’s speech was clearly influenced by this. She looked back on what it had been like the first time she stood before this group of vice-chancellors and gave the impression that this was the last time in this context.

What issues will be important in the election campaign? The issues the voters care most about, we were told, are health care, refugees, and law and order – not university issues. The Minister went on to talk about the security issues affecting the sector, such as the threat against Malmö University and the shooting in Uppsala. Then she took up the research bill and the investments made by the government during this electoral period. She particularly emphasised that the 25,000 additional places are permanent, unlike the temporary measures taken by the previous government. In general, she praised the sector and stressed that Sweden as a whole has a fantastic higher education landscape. And then came the “whole country – lifelong – worldwide” line as the setting for policy.

I noted that a government bill on higher education admissions will be presented in March, with a government decision due in June, taking effect in the autumn semester 2022, to allow time for those just entering upper secondary school to complete their programme. Otherwise there was little that was new, many issues were postponed for future attention, for the most part assigned to ongoing government inquiries on internationalisation and on governance and resources. But research infrastructure is so important and complex that it will be tackled by a separate inquiry, the Minister said, though not before the election. And the inquiry on internationalisation will probably deliver its interim report during the spring. Good to know in advance so we can plan and be prepared. As usual, it was worthwhile to meet colleagues and exchange experiences, and to get some idea of what’s coming up. The fact that it’s an election year was obvious.

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January: beginning of term and doctoral degree ceremony

(Original Swedish post published 21 January.)

The spring semester has kicked off and we have welcomed old and new students to our University. On Friday, we will hold our Winter Conferment Ceremony, at which our nine faculties honour new PhDs and honorary doctors. The people of Uppsala notice the day because cannon salutes are fired as early as seven in the morning and during the actual ceremony. Along with the doctoral degrees, the University gives out some of its most prestigious prizes and awards. Most of the honorary doctors give lectures or seminars during the week – have a look on the University’s events page.

Last week we visited Malmö, where Sweden’s latest university celebrated its establishment. The theme of the day was “Knowledge in collaboration: a seminar on inclusive and sustainable societies”. Minister for Higher Education and Research Helene Hellmark Knutsson started proceedings by talking about the government’s research bill, which was presented just over a year ago. Nothing new, in other words, but it was interesting to hear what she emphasised and highlighted.

Last week ended with a state visit, when Uppsala welcomed the President of Iceland, Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, accompanied by his wife Eliza Jean Reid and a delegation, together with the King and Queen of Sweden. The programme at Uppsala University began at Ångström Laboratory, with presentations by researchers on sustainable energy and natural disasters. After that the delegation was received at the University Main Building, where researchers gave a short introduction to the links between Uppsala and Iceland’s cultural heritage. The visit to the University concluded at the library, with a showing of Icelandic manuscripts including the Uppsala Edda. The visit to Uppsala ended with lunch at the castle, hosted by County Governor Göran Enander.

In between all the ceremonies and state visits, we’re hard at work on the University’s annual report for 2017 and the budget documentation we have to send to the Ministry ahead of the round of annual dialogues between the Ministry and its subordinate agencies, including universities. Eva will take part in the traditional meeting between the Minister and vice-chancellors at Steningevik, we’ll have to see what the Minister takes up then. Anders is off to Davos to take part in a side event at the World Economic Forum, where Maria Strömme will speak on the incredible possibilities opened up by new materials. Being vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor is full of variation and never boring. We hope you had a chance to enjoy the glorious winter weather at the weekend.

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Happy New Year – welcome back!

(Original Swedish post published 7 January.)

We hope you have enjoyed the holidays. Now we’re back and it’s time to get set for a new semester at our University. Many of you are already busy with research, exams, teaching, services and support so that everything goes as well as possible.

Our Monday starts with a meeting of the Management Council at which we will discuss strategic issues, priorities and projects for the years to come. Together with the vice-rectors and the students, we will decide on the way ahead. Though we have already put in a lot of work on many of the issues – research infrastructure, internationalisation and career paths, for example – they still demand planning and priority setting.

  • How can we best follow up on Q&R17 and how can we take the results of educational evaluations forward?
  • How can we adapt our services and administration to give the most appropriate support in an increasingly international research and study environment?
  • How can we keep our programmes fresh and forward looking to equip Uppsala students for an increasingly unpredictable future?
  • How can we become an even better employer and create more attractive workplaces?

The #MeToo discussion has reminded us how important it is that we always treat one another with respect and responsibility, irrespective of our role and position. How can we become better at this? And what should we in the university management be doing to prevent misconduct and promote good research practice?

As you see, we have many important issues that we are eager to get to grips with on Monday. We hope you are all happy to be back and look forward to a new semester with you!

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