Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: October 2019

Give universities a chance to contribute to the development of Sweden and a sustainable society

Climate crisis, antibiotic resistance, mental ill health among young people, distrust and division between groups in society, threats to democratic rights and freedoms, security and peace. The ability to meet major societal challenges depends on knowledge that only research can give. We will gladly shoulder our responsibility to contribute to a better future for coming generations and hope there is a clear and broad willingness on the part of politicians to give us a chance to do so.

Today we submitted our input to the government’s research bill, which is expected next autumn and will set out the direction of research policy from 2021 onwards. We propose an increase of SEK 3.5 billion in the national research budget, divided between increased direct government funding, excellence initiatives related to societal challenges, and investments in research infrastructure. This is necessary for Sweden to strengthen its position as a leading knowledge nation and contribute to solving societal challenges. As an international research university, we operate in an international context and are therefore affected by changes in the world around us. The exchange rate of the Swedish krona, the EU economy and competition for talent from other countries are a few of the many factors that have a direct impact on us.

Research policy needs to drive quality and take a long-term perspective; it must provide scope for testing new paths. Over the past decade, higher education institutions have experienced decreasing strategic control over their own development. Direct government funding has accounted for a shrinking part of overall funding, while the requirements regarding what this funding has to cover have increased.  Externally funded projects and research infrastructure, which is becoming increasingly costly, have to be co-financed out of the same resources.

Last week, Björn Halleröd, Secretary General for Research Infrastructures at the Swedish Research Council, and the Vice-Chancellor were interviewed by the Uppsala newspaper UNT about the need for funding for research infrastructure. Advanced new technology offers fantastic new opportunities but is expensive, requires international cooperation and is affected by various external factors. Quite simply, research is increasingly expensive. In the article, Björn Halleröd expressed concern about a situation where the large universities, which shoulder most responsibility for the facilities, will be adversely affected: “Ultimately, advanced research will suffer. Sweden will become a weaker research nation as so much modern research demands advanced infrastructure.” This is a key issue for Swedish research. Serious investments in research infrastructure are essential to prevent grave consequences for research and for Sweden as a knowledge nation. Our impression is that there is widespread consensus on this among our colleagues and partners. In this connection, we would like to warn against measures that merely involve shuffling resources. Calling a redistribution from a funding body to a government authority an investment, as Minister for Higher Education and Research Matilda Ernkrans did in the same article, is muddying the waters and makes no difference to long-term developments.

Research and higher education are an area where agreement should be possible across party lines. All policy areas benefit from knowledge growth. The input from the universities gives the politicians a chance to get a good picture of what is needed.

Although the upcoming bill will focus on research and innovation, we also emphasise that it is high time for Sweden to make an effort for higher education. The ‘price tags’ (allowances per student) have been gradually eroded. To invest as much in real terms in each student today as we did 25 years ago would require additional quality-enhancing resources of nearly SEK 7 billion. This is not primarily a matter of putting the universities in a stronger position; it is an investment to equip young people today with knowledge to meet current and future challenges. Ideally, there should be a separate education bill, but as no such bill has been announced, we choose to include education in our research bill input.  After all, there are strong links between research and education, they are interdependent at a research university like Uppsala.

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Broader partnership aims for European University status

Today I signed a Consortium Letter of Intent for ENLIGHT, our new venture in the second pilot round of the European Univeristy Initiative. Our application in the first pilot call, from the U4Society network (with Göttingen, Groningen, Ghent and Tartu), was well received but ultimately fell short. Now we are making a new effort along with four additional universities that complement our network in terms of geographical coverage and valuable expertise: the University of Bordeaux (France), the University of the Basque Country (Bilbao, Spain), the University of Galway (Ireland) and Comenius University (Slovakia).

Shaking hands on ENLIGHT

Intensive discussions over the summer resulted in the identification of a major theme, Sustainable Cities, where all nine universities see many advantages to cooperating. At the beginning of the week, we gathered with our partners in Tartu to pursue our ideas further. We had productive and inspiring discussions that bode well for the future.

The EU programme, known as the ‘European Universities Initiative’, aims to “bring together a new generation of creative Europeans able to cooperate across languages, borders and disciplines to address societal challenges and skills shortages faced in Europe.” Solutions to complicated societal challenges require international cooperation to access multiple points of view and benefit from other countries’ experiences.

We will now continue work on the application for European University status with renewed vigour. The application is due in February 2020 so time is short.

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International networks important for the University’s development

Tomorrow I will be travelling to Bologna for a meeting of the presidents of The Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, a network we co-founded in 2016.  Currently made up of 19 higher education institutions in 14 countries, its purpose is to represent the interests of research-intensive universities in research, innovation and education affairs at EU level. It complements our other international networks by its focus on policy issues.

The agenda for the presidents’ meeting on this occasion includes discussion of the upcoming EU programmes in research and education. We will also discuss how we, as universities, can respond to the growing trend towards populism and distrust for knowledge. The meeting is timely; no one can have missed the latest twists and turns in the Brexit saga, for example. I hope and believe developments will be orderly and constructive where cooperation on research and education is concerned – both parties want the UK to be able to continue to participate in the EU’s programmes in these areas. The hole that the UK’s exit will leave in the EU budget is perhaps more of a concern. The risk is that it will lead to cutbacks that, in the worst case, will affect the European Research Council (ERC) and the programmes and grants that are most appreciated by researchers and students. Here the research community needs to mobilise to highlight the value we consider they have for the development of Europe.

In a short time, The Guild has established itself as an important plattform for Uppsala University in EU affairs. It has given us a stronger voice in Brussels and led to increased involvement in these matters at the University. The network has presented numerous policy documents in various public connections. As a result, it is becoming increasingly widely known. (You can read more about the network’s latest interventions in important policy issues here.) Alongside its conferences, policy documents and proposals for change, The Guild has strengthened the member universities’ internal understanding of the EU system.

As a member of the Board, I am deeply engaged in the network’s continued development. Having said that, the most important thing is the work done in The Guild’s working groups, in which representatives from various parts of our University participate. Sverker Holmgren from the Department of Information Technology, for example, is in the Open Science working group. Although this group is relatively new, it has already discussed and commented on highly topical issues such as Plan S and the management of research data. Together with other European university networks, this working group gives the European universities – which, after all, is where research is conducted in practice and an awareness of needs is most acute – a voice in the development of major new European initiatives, such as the European Open Science Cloud (EOSC).

Senior representatives of faculties in the domain of medicine and pharmacy recently visited The Guild’s office in Brussels and returned to Uppsala with very positive impressions.  There are several major EU-funded research programmes in this disciplinary domain, e.g. EIT Health and IMI Enable, in which Professor Mats Larhed and Professor Anders Karlén respectively have been involved from the start. Next year deans of medicine in the network will meet in Uppsala to discuss the need for cooperation on research infrastructure.

As one of Europe’s most active universities in Erasmus+, it is also a great advantage to be involved and exert an influence via the working group for this programme. We also represent The Guild in the Commission’s reference group for Erasmus+ cooperation projects.

Next week I will meet another network, U4+, in Tartu. Our cooperation in this network has developed very positively since it started in 2008. We have invited four more universities to our annual rectors’ meeting, with whom we hope to begin cooperation ahead of the second pilot call in the European University Initiative.

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Sustainability on the agenda

With autumn colours at their peak, it was time this week for the semester’s deans away day. We are half way through the week when the year’s Nobel prizes are revealed, a time of year when basic science receives a lot of well-deserved attention. It was particularly pleasing that one of the laureates sharing the physics prize, Michel Mayor, holds an honorary doctorate from Uppsala University. Congratulations! My own background being in chemistry, I need hardly make a secret of the fact that the chemistry prize has special meaning for me. Today we learned that it is being awarded to battery researchers John B. Goodenough, Stanley Whittingham and Akir Yoshino, a very welcome choice. Uppsala University has extensive and very successful battery research, and Professor Kristina Edström also heads the major European initiative Battery 2030. She has been very busy with interviews today as the Nobel Committee’s expert.

Kristina Edström at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
Kristina Edström at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

For today’s deans’ meeting, we had commissioned a new report from Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Sustainable Development Anna Rutgersson and Environmental Director Karolina Kjellberg to clarify where we stand in our internal environmental and climate efforts. The report shows that we are not currently doing enough to ensure that our activities are in line with established Swedish and international targets.

We started the session by watching Professor Keri Facer lecture by videolink on how universities can work for the climate in a future-oriented way. Last week she gave her Zennström Lecture “Learning to live with a lively planet: the renewal of the university’s mission in the era of climate change”. Keri Facer is Professor of Educational and Social Futures at the University of Bristol, but also currently holds the Zennström Visiting Professorship in Climate Change Leadership, a subject that is growing rapidly at the University.

Keri Facer, Zennström Professor of Climate Change Leadership

We had a lively and very good discussion on how to work effectively for sustainable development at Uppsala University. I now feel that I, as Vice-Chancellor, have a strong mandate to revise our environmental plan to a more ambitious level with clearer targets. I will decide on terms of reference for this project in the near future at an upcoming decision-making session.

Climate and sustainability issues have risen high on the agenda in Sweden and globally, and rightly so. The scientific community has long agreed that the situation is serious and called upon the world to act. We all have a responsibility to contribute to achieving the goals set in the UN’s 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement. For those of us in the university management, it is important that what we do leads forwards, is a genuine part of our governance documents and plans, and is more than just fine words.

When asked what the University is doing for the climate, I always emphasise that the very most important contribution to a sustainable world is our research and education, which give society knowledge to solve the challenges. This is our strength. As a full-scale research university, Uppsala University is well equipped to contribute deep specialist knowledge across a wide range of fields. There are great opportunities to combine perspectives in new ways and important work is already being done to initiate interdisciplinary projects in both research and education. However, we must also of course set an example in the University’s own activities. We must be ambitious about practising what we preach and strive to pave the way for sustainable choices.

At this time, when people are waking up to the threats to the climate, initiatives, calls for action and petitions abound. As Vice-Chancellor, I genuinely welcome the commitment of the University’s students, staff and partners. Having said that, I would like to recall the importance of keeping calm and steering a steady course for the climate on a scientific basis. As one of my advisers to the Vice-Chancellor, Cecilia Wejryd, once expressed this approach so wisely in another context: we need both the energy of activists and the coolness of the academic community. When those around us are running, it is important that academia dares to persist in moving methodically with the facts before us. We must act quickly, but on a scientific basis, not on the basis of ‘placard politics’. Pressing steadily ahead and making well-considered choices may not be the most spectacular way to show commitment, but I am convinced it leads to results.

We already participate actively in the Uppsala Climate Protocol and have entered into an agreement with Akademiska Hus on climate measures. More landlords may follow. But we also need to draw up well-prepared proposals on measures that make it easier for our faculties, departments and centres to make good climate choices. And make sure to include them in the University’s operational plans and environmental plan. If there are researchers who have studied the efficacy of different measures in large organisations, we must talk with them. What we do must be based on knowledge and dialogue.

Alongside these efforts, we must become better at picking up ideas from inside the University, not least from our students. Next week we will be discussing the issue of a Green Office in the Management Council, for this very purpose. Many departments have made significant progress and taken important steps based on their own conditions. I am sure they can inspire others. It is important to learn from one another.

It is also important to remember to maintain an open dialogue on these matters. Here, the universities have an important part to play. Some proposals that came up during the meeting were “Ask Uppsala” or “Environmental Help” to respond to people’s questions about the climate. In a society where questions cannot be asked, points of view cannot meet and conflicts between different goals cannot be discussed in depth, silence spreads. And if that happens, we are all losers. We say that it must be easy to do the right thing, but it is not always easy to know the right thing to do. Here we must take responsibility and be active in the dialogue.

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Focus on university development and educational innovation

The CALIE project (Collaboration, Academic Leadership & Innovation in Higher Education) brings together four broad-based research universities in Sweden (Gothenburg, Lund, Stockholm and Uppsala) and three leading American universities (UC Berkeley, Stanford University and the University of Washington). The aim is to learn from one another how we can develop the capacity of our universities to meet challenging changes in society, not least through educational innovation.

At a kick-off meeting last week, the focus was on Berkeley and Stanford. Representatives of Berkeley described the process that had led to their ‘signature initiatives’ – five broad cross-disciplinary initiatives that encompass both research and education. The five themes identified have a familiar ring to us in Uppsala:

  • Artificial intelligence – and its impact in the world of work and in science
  • Health and ageing
  • Environment and climate change
  • Threats to democracy
  • Unequal opportunities/inequality and its consequences in society

The extensive contract education conducted by UC Berkeley Extension is impressive. A highly interesting discussion also arose about building a platform for more regular researcher exchanges between Berkeley and the Nordic countries/Sweden, based around the five signature initiatives. The US participants expressed a particular interest in studying the – globally speaking, successful – Nordic model for tackling sustainability challenges and climate policy.

All comparisons between Stanford and Swedish universities have to bear in mind the quite staggering differences in operating conditions. Stanford, with 17,000 students (most of whom are Master’s or PhD students), has an annual turnover virtually equal to that of the entire Swedish higher education sector. Another fundamental difference is that Stanford’s ‘business model’ is so clearly about giving students value for all the money they pay for their education, and not least about building strong and lifelong ties of loyalty to guarantee future donations that will finance everything from scholarships to buildings and new research initiatives. What is most impressive is how consistently they strive to ensure quality through tremendously careful recruitment processes, for both academic staff and students.

Berkeley and Stanford share an emphasis on giving all students, including humanities and social sciences students, basic ‘computational literacy’. The future belongs to social scientists who can count, asserted a leading representative of Stanford (with a background in engineering). Another exciting Stanford initiative, Social X-Change, aims to enable social scientists to engage in ‘co-creative research’ aimed at solving specific problems in society.

Uppsala’s project team is led by the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and includes representatives of the disciplinary domains, the Division for Quality Enhancement, the Division for Internationalisation and the students’ unions.

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New commissioner for innovation and youth

This week it was time for the European Parliament to quiz the nominee for the new position of commissioner for innovation and youth, Mariya Gabriel. Her brief is interesting and contains more than the title suggests. For the first time, research, innovation and education (alongside culture, youth and sport) are being combined in a single portfolio. This is a significant change that likely brings both opportunities and risks. On the one hand, it creates potential synergies within the ‘knowledge triangle’, as Gabriel herself underlined during the questioning. However, there is also a risk that the breadth of the portfolio will reduce the focus on research in the future, which would be unfortunate.

While Gabriel’s policies will no doubt be influenced by the Commission’s broader policy agenda, she states that she will defend the research budget, including ERC grants, in upcoming negotiations. This is promising. Top quality basic research with a long-term perspective has often proved to be the way that ultimately leads to solutions to societal challenges.

Gabriel is said to have performed well during questioning. After eight years as an MEP and two years as a member of the European Commission, the proposed Bulgarian commissioner is thoroughly familiar with the language and rituals used in Brussels. We can probably expect her to be approved by the European Parliament on 23 October. The consequences of her mandate for innovation and knowledge development in Europe will then remain to be seen.

SUHF seminar on European Universities

Today the Expert Group on Internationalisation at the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) organised a seminar for information and discussion on Sweden’s participation in the European Universities initiative. On the whole, Sweden has done well: six Swedish higher education institutions are involved in the total of seventeen alliances that were successful in the first pilot round. Our application with U4 was not among them, but we will be trying again in the next pilot round in a broader constellation. Tine Delva, a policy adviser in Brussels who works on this issue, presented a preliminary evaluation of the pilot and told us about the next application round. Ludovic Thilly from the University of Poitiers, the current chair of the Coimbra network, shared his experience with participants and gave us an overview of how Coimbra supports experience exchanges between its members. The messages that emerged clearly were that being involved in European Universities takes time, involves many people and is both challenging and inspiring. The afternoon ended with a panel discussion in which representatives of higher education institutions, the Swedish Council for Higher Education and the Ministry of Education and Research participated along with the invited speakers. Several EU countries provide support to their universities in the event of successful applications, and one of the speakers warned that the lack of national support could make Swedish institutions less attractive partners in future applications.

Sigbritt Karlsson leads the panel discussion

As chair of the Expert Group, I had the task of summing up the seminar and the afternoon. The European Universities initiative has led to a remarkable revitalisation of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) and the Bologna Process and has induced a large proportion of Europe’s universities to get involved in ambitious and far-reaching cooperation. I am convinced obstacles will need to be eliminated to give universities increased authority to act and it will be noticeable when more are involved in European Universities and deeper international cooperation.  The Ministry of Education and Research needs to be receptive and willing to address these issues in future. The Expert Group, together with the Swedish Council for Higher Education, will continue to create arenas for experience exchange between higher education institutions. Thank you, everyone who contributed to an interesting and stimulating afternoon on European Universities!

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