Uppsala University, Sweden

Month: September 2020

Pact for research and innovation in Europe

We have written previously about developments in the pipeline at European level in the area of research, education and innovation that will affect us in Sweden. A great deal has happened since then, both in Brussels and in Sweden.

Yesterday there was a digital hearing on the proposed national strategy for Sweden’s participation in the upcoming EU framework programme for research and innovation (Horizon Europe). The proposal has been drawn up by the coordinating group EU-SAM, which is led by Vinnova. Uppsala University welcomes this initiative, though we wish it had been in place a year ago. That would have given us a shared national platform from which we would have had better prospects of influencing the contents of the framework programme to align more with Swedish wishes and priorities.

EU Office at BMC. Photo Mikael Wallerstedt

One obvious trend is that in its initiatives, the EU is seeking engagement and co-financing from the Member States. The goal is to guide the countries, by various incentives, towards shared strategies for increasing effectiveness and interplay between their various systems of research, innovation and education. The initiatives stem from policy discussions that reach the higher education institutions all too rarely, despite the fact that universities and other HEIs account for more than half of Sweden’s participation in the framework programme. Thanks to our membership of The Guild, we now have insight into the processes and can participate in the discussion.

One good example of an important policy discussion of this kind is the agenda-setting initiative European Research Area (ERA ), which the European Commission presented today. The Commission’s communication proposes a ‘relaunch’ for the ERA through a ‘pact’ for research and innovation in which the Member States commit themselves to developing prioritised measures together. A good deal of the contents was as expected, for example, the call to Member States to concentrate on major societal challenges, particularly economic recovery and the digital and green transitions. One new goal is that within ten years, the Member States will devote five per cent of public funding for research – a proposed 1.25% of GDP – to the EU’s joint programmes and partnerships. The idea is for Member States to adopt the goals of the document voluntarily. To some extent, this reflects what The Guild has called for (read the document from the Guild here), although we would have liked to see the UN Global Goals as the foundation, rather than the needs of industry, as well as higher targets for public investments.

EIT Health meeting in Uppsala for entrepreneurs and researchers from all over Europe. Photo Mikael Wallerstedt

On the home front, we need national coordination and transparency in the Swedish process of developing positions and input. To be able to participate in EU-level conversations, we need to become clearer about what we want in Sweden and able to communicate this in our dialogue with European partners. This is our hope of the national strategy for Sweden’s participation in the EU research programme, which is now being prepared. We have given our input to the strategy, in which we emphasise that our priorities should be based on excellent science, stress the importance of basic research in the value chain and of infrastructure for research, and highlight the potential for integrating research and education at our comprehensive universities.

The new Commission has chosen to place education, research and innovation under the same commissioner, Mariya Gabriel – a clear signal of the link between research and education, which we consider self-evident – while the Swedish Government has chosen to limit itself to a strategy for the research programme alone. This is a shame when so much is now happening at the interface between education and research at the initiative of the Commission, for example, digitalisation, the career system and the transformation of our sector. This applies not least to the Commission’s latest European Universities Initiative, in which eleven Swedish higher education institutions are taking part in various alliances, in our case ENLIGHT. This has been called a ‘testbed’ for Vision 2030 on the Future of Universities, another Commission initiative targeting our sector.

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Challenges and opportunities for the University magnified at Campus Gotland

Several trips to Campus Gotland were planned for the spring and autumn, including visits by the University Board and the International Advisory Council. Then came the pandemic. But this week the time had finally come to visit Campus Gotland. In the course of a busy two-day programme, prepared by Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor Olle Jansson, I met researchers, teachers, administrative staff, the county governor, representatives of the region and students. As always after a visit to Gotland, I returned to Uppsala full of inspiration and new insights.

We often say Campus Gotland is a place where we can try out new ideas in a smaller setting. Ideally, the experiences gained and lessons learned can be transferred to and advance all of our large University. At Campus Gotland, considerable parts of the University join up: 22 departments and the administration operate in the same corridors and congregate in the same lunchroom. New possibilities for collaboration, cross-disicplinary education and research open up when people meet in everyday life.

The new graduate school in sustainable development is one such inspiring example. I had the opportunity to meet head of research and director Jenny Helin and to see the fine, newly renovated premises with their view of the harbour. The graduate school is in the process of setting up, with several hundred applications for 12 new doctoral student positions that are now being evaluated and will be divided between the five research projects. The research environment built up will be multidisciplinary, with projects ranging from the energy transition in society, where Gotland has been selected as a national pilot, to investigation and questioning of the very concept of sustainability. Different meanings of the word affect what comes out of sustainability efforts in practice. The graduate school will also engage in external collaboration and combines regional relevance with international excellence.

Jenny Helin

The graduate school will provide an arena for encounters not just between different disciplines but also between different doctoral education traditions and different administrative processes from the home departments of the supervisor team. Challenges are bound to arise and those involved are prepared to take them on, though of course it would have been easier without the pronounced differences found in our large, decentralised University. I sense the existence of a problem-solving tradition at our newest campus, which we need to draw on. These experiences can be useful for the entire University; it is a key challenge to try to break down thresholds that put unnecessary obstacles in the way of cooperation across boundaries, in Uppsala as well. The graduate school will have all 12 newly admitted doctoral students in place in the new year and I look forward to following this exciting and innovative venture.

Other points on the programme on the first day included lunch with County Governor Anders Flanking and a presentation of Campus Gotland’s work with international students. After that, we discussed experiences from this period of the coronavirus and the application of recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Sweden and the Vice-Chancellor. Here too it became obvious that the differences that exist between departments and faculties in Uppsala come to the surface in Visby and grate unnecessarily. Both on Gotland and in Uppsala, we need more dialogue and cooperation about how we can learn from one another and eliminate unnecessary differences, a point that has also been brought up by the students’ unions in Uppsala.

Inspiring meeting with the Department of Game Design

On the second day, I met representatives of the Department of Game Design, a field that has obviously matured as an academic subject. The programmes attract students from all over the world who have done much to give the department a good international reputation by distinguishing themselves in competitions at gaming conferences. Doris Rusch, from MIT and Chicago, came to Visby for a conference and chose to stay. With her international networks and strong belief in the department’s potential, she is now helping to build up the research side in close collaboration with the already successful educational programmes. See an interview with Doris Rusch here.

I then met representatives of our partnership with Region Gotland – a collaboration with great potential where we are testing ways forward to find what works best for both partners. My stay concluded with a visit to Rindi students’ union where I heard about their vital experiences of involvement to promote student participation and of studying at Campus Gotland. I could see that our students are the people who can give us the most telling examples of ways in which our complex and compartmentalised organisation leads to unnecessary and baffling complications in day-to-day life on campus.

Lunchtime walk

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Guest Post: Shaping a shared vision for the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy

After nine years as deputy vice-rector, this summer I stepped up as Vice-Rector of the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy (Medfarm). This is an exciting challenge that I am very much looking forward to. It’s the first time Medfarm has chosen a vice-rector with roots in the Faculty of Pharmacy. I feel I enjoy strong support from the entire disciplinary domain and the first few months have more than confirmed my positive expectations of the role!

As in all parts of the University, in our disciplinary domain too, the spring was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. I am very pleased and proud that all the staff were so committed, flexible and pragmatic in their approach at a time that brought new challenges and demanded changes in the way we taught, did research and studied. By our combined efforts, we managed to reorganise our activities in a short space of time and were able to carry out our teaching and assessment remotely. We learned plenty of lessons at Medfarm, which we will take forward as we move ahead.

All geared up for Medfarm’s vision project

A great deal is happening at Medfarm and things are moving fast. One obvious example are the new opportunities offered by this autumn’s budget bill, which increases direct government funding for education and research. A larger budget than usual shows that the government has confidence in what we are doing.

Medfarm has drawn up a joint goal for collaboration between Region Uppsala and Uppsala University, focusing in particular on arrangements for carrying out student placements. The new six-year medicine programme will start in autumn 2021 with new funding from the government, and we are launching a completely new occupational therapist programme in response to requests from the health services to meet the region’s needs.

To provide motivation and obtain a clear picture of where we are heading and why, we need a vision. The vision will build up a picture of our future aspirations that we have courage and passion enough to believe in. As early as 5–6 October, I will be gathering the domain’s staff and students for a series of workshops to work together on our vision. The challenge will be to raise our sights and aim for what is best for the entire organisation – and by that I mean both Uppsala University and the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy. All students and staff will have a chance to make their voice heard and everyone is invited to participate actively, whether in physical meetings or virtually. The workshops will be led by an English-speaking facilitator with extensive experience of similar processes at other universities in Europe.

The work on our vision is one of our most important tasks in 2020–21 and will influence our activities for a long time to come. I have invited everyone connected with the disciplinary domain to take part and get involved for Medfarm’s future! Register here: www.medfarm.uu.se/vision

Mats Larhed, Vice-Rector of the Disciplinary Domain of Medicine and Pharmacy

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Zoom fatigue? Take a break

In just a few months, day-to-day working life has changed radically for most of us. Fewer journeys for meetings, fewer physical meetings, less small talk. Many people talk about feeling more efficient. However, many also say they feel more easily tired.

There is reason to stop and think about this. We have discovered that we can perform tasks that demand concentration and freedom from disturbances more efficiently when working remotely and at home, which has taught us to take a more positive view of working from home. However, the more time passes the more we realise that both we personally and our organisation have other needs too. A lot can happen when we meet up and chat more casually, without an agenda. Whereas physical meetings are invigorating, in the worst case digital meetings can sap our energy. We run a risk of missing out on the creative conversations that spark new ideas.

Walk and talk

I’m sure I’m not the only one who spends many long hours in Zoom meetings. One meeting follows another, sometimes without a break, and in the worst case, on top of that you’re invited to some Zoom lunch sandwiched in between the other meetings. Having said that, it is noticeable that many people arranging meetings have understood and made changes for the better. Shorter sessions, with planned breaks and group discussions mixed in, a variety of working formats and clear instructions to participants to turn off their microphones (and turn them on when it’s time to talk) and to ‘raise their hands’ for attention.

If a reasonable format for a physical meeting is a maximum of one hour without a break, I would say that a digital meeting should last half an hour. Our brains can’t cope with any more. A few words of advice to you all: schedule breaks between meetings and during longer meetings. Go for a walk, get some air, make sure to see other surroundings and meet people. And one other tip: sit up – no meetings lying in the sofa. I speak from experience – there’s a risk of nodding off (hopefully with the video turned off).

Let us develop the good sides of digital working and add things that provide energy and new ideas.

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Focus on research infrastructure

The funding and organisation of research infrastructure is an urgent and vital issue for Sweden’s future as a research nation. Like many other stakeholders we raised this issue in our input to the government’s research bill. On Tuesday the government issued a short press release announcing that funds will be allocated in the autumn’s budget bill to both research infrastructure and direct government funding for higher education. Next year, both the direct government funding and the project and infrastructure funding available to the Swedish Research Council will be increased by a total sum in excess of SEK 2.7 billion. While it is positive that our message has been understood, we will naturally read the details in the research bill that is expected this autumn very carefully.

We also look forward with great interest to the inquiry that Tobias Krantz has just begun, on the very subject of the funding, organisation and prioritisation of research infrastructure. The research infrastructure landscape presents a fragmented picture, with many international linkages. An analysis of the system and the challenges we are struggling with is something the higher education institutions have long been calling for. Tobias Krantz was at Uppsala University yesterday. He met representatives of the FREIA Laboratory and the Swedish National Infrastructure for Computing (SNIC) and concluded the afternoon as the opening speaker at a Vice-Chancellor’s Seminar on research infrastructure.

Professor Olof Karis guiding Tobias Krantz at Freia Laboratory

It was a good seminar, with around 30 sparsely placed participants in the Humanities Theatre and more than 120 participants via Zoom. Many important questions were raised. A coherent structure is needed, with a clearly formulated mandate and long-term funding for the major facilities. That said, it is important to pick up on innovative, bottom-up ideas. The needs of research must be central and the higher education institutions have to be involved and exert influence. It is not easy to combine a long-term perspective and renewal. No single model will fit all research infrastructure. SciLifeLab is a successful example of a distributed infrastructure with many interlinked platforms and facilities that encompasses both sustainability and renewal.

With regard to funding as well, there will be no single solution. Fees are appropriate for some infrastructure facilities, but not for others. Although people often say that industry can contribute financially, a glance at the international picture shows that in the best case, industrial actors cover around 10 per cent of the costs. Having said that, there is great potential to recognise shared interests leading to joint projects with industry.

Another point that needs to be discussed in detail is our outlook on the balance between investments and operations. Some infrastructure facilities, particularly in humanities and social sciences, while not requiring high initial investment costs, take years to build up. It may therefore be more constructive to think instead about a building-up phase and an operational phase for more effective funding. In general, the inquiry needs to make impact analysis a recurrent theme.

The role of large-scale national e-infrastructure is another important issue that was discussed. Access to computational and storage resources is vital to ensure that other infrastructures work effectively and support research advances. E-infrastructure can therefore be regarded as the infrastructures’ infrastructure. We need to build on what already exists and come up with a coherent organisation with long-term funding that is based on research needs. Another area that must not be forgotten is instrumentation and accelerator development, the FREIA Laboratory being one example. This vital development of technology for infrastructure, which often goes on to benefit industry, falls between the cracks in terms of funding and needs to be made visible.

Tobias Krantz has received wide-ranging terms of reference and we are more than happy to assist his endeavours. In doing so, we must focus on the essentials and not forget that we HEIs can, and should, do certain things ourselves. Krantz, who throughout showed great interest in the issues, warned about exaggerated expectations of the inquiry and we do of course realise that it will not be able to solve everything. But we hope it will at least take us a few steps forward.

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Semester begins with serious, happy and coronavirus business

The semester has started and activities are underway, with students on campus and many people very responsibly keeping their distance to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We have distancing hosts on campus to remind anyone who forgets. We had our first cases of infection in a couple of student groups this week, and the situation was dealt with quickly and responsibly by course coordinators and faculties. With so many thousand students, it would be strange not to have a single case, so this was not unexpected. However, we would like to take the opportunity to remind everyone to keep going, stay strong and comply with the restrictions so that we can avoid a return to remote education other than briefly in small groups while contact tracing is in progress. Both in Uppsala and in Visby, we are maintaining close contact and collaborating well with the health services’ contact tracing operations.

Keep up to date via the web (for employees, and for students) and follow the instructions about what to do if you personally have tested positive or have an infected student or member of staff. In Sweden we have great individual responsibility under the Contagious Diseases Act, which makes it an offence to fail to provide prompt information about infection.

As usual, the week contained many meetings. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor met the groups preparing for the Swedish Higher Education Authority’s review of our quality assurance procedures. Many people have been involved in the preparations and we will be following the work with interest. This week we learned that the government is making a legislative change and has appointed Peter Honeth to assist the responsible authority, the Swedish Council for Higher Education, so that the scholastic aptitude test can be carried out this autumn. There have been many twists and turns in this issue and we now await news of what this will mean for Uppsala. The week also offered a time for celebration when the Ångström Laboratory’s new Building 9 was inaugurated at 9 o’clock on 9/9.

On Tuesday, I (Eva) had a productive meeting with some 40 young researchers from the organisation Junior Faculty. I received many questions related to the ongoing pandemic and I would like to try here to summarise some of the discussions we had on stalled research projects, isolation, our take on masks and long-term impacts of the pandemic, and in which channels to seek information about the coronavirus/COVID-19.

It is not yet possible to take in all the consequences of the pandemic for research or to see how to deal with these impacts. The situation of doctoral students has been discussed and will be assessed in connection with their individual study plans to identify any needs for extensions. Along with other university leaders in Sweden, I am drawing attention to the need to extend funding periods and other measures. The impact of the pandemic has varied. While some have been able to use this period to focus on their writing with fewer distractions, others have been delayed by not being able to travel or being unable to collect the data they need.

The pandemic has caused anxiety and uncertainty about what to do, which can be difficult to manage. This is something we all need to bear in mind. I sometimes say that academia is an environment where praise is in short supply, and I think at this time it is more important than ever to be generous and show appreciation for one another. Get in touch with those who cannot be here physically and ask how they’re getting on. When working at home a lot, it is important to sit comfortably and correctly, and to make sure to move around. We’re eager to become incredibly efficient in Zoom, but it’s important not to forget those other things. A bit of light-hearted chat about inessential things has a place in Zoom too.

Whether or not masks should be worn is a question that many people feel strongly about. We do not require people to wear masks at the University, but naturally anyone who wants to wear a mask can do so. It is important that masks are not used as an excuse for not keeping your distance or following the recommendations of the Public Health Agency of Sweden. Personally, I use a mask when I travel by train or fly. We have picked up signals from the regional health authority that they regard public transport as a major risk. We therefore call on everyone to walk or cycle as far as possible.

When we look back on this time, we will surely see that we have changed the way we do things – what is important is that we maintain our focus on quality. One positive effect we can already note is that our entire organisation at all levels has become sharper at using digital tools in our work. This will move the University forward. Some of our digital solutions are here to stay – many people attest that Zoom meetings have worked better than physical meetings and want to keep them. Having said that, we have also realised how much physical meetings mean and how much we miss them.

I was asked about the long-term consequences for international mobility. This is one point I feel certain about. International mobility is important and must continue. Knowledge knows no borders. International experience is good not only for the career, it also brings intercultural competence that increases understanding between people. In this way, the Erasmus Programmes, for example, are also a peace project. On the other hand, our travel patterns are likely to change: there will be fewer short trips to conferences and meetings that can be held digitally. This will have benefits for both health and the environment. But keep going on postdocs, field studies, exchanges!

With regard to which information from the University about COVID-19 to follow, such a large university as Uppsala needs multiple channels. General information for everyone is gathered together in the Staff Portal and for students on uu.se, but the conditions vary so much across our broad university that local information is also needed at various levels. On the Vice-Chancellor’s Blog we try now and then to explain the management’s view of the situation and how to interpret the general decision by the Vice-Chancellor from this summer which is still in effect.

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Focus on career paths

One of the most essential issues for a university is to succeed in recruiting and retaining the very best researchers and teachers. This is the key to continued success, new discoveries and satisfied students. If we are to be an attractive research and education environment that will interest the best people, not just nationally but internationally, we have to develop the career paths we can offer at the University. Consequently, several projects are now in progress dealing precisely with the University’s talent recruitment, development and retention.

Inquiry authors Ann Fust and Magnus Ödman

Today a digital hearing was organised with Ann Fust and Magnus Ödman, whose inquiry has resulted in a proposal on new Appointment Regulations, which is now being circulated for comment. It was pleasing to see so many participants in the Zoom meeting – close to 100 people – and to receive so many good, constructive comments. Many individuals have contributed ideas and opinions in the course of the inquiry, and I would now like to encourage everyone to contribute to the consultation responses too so that we can further hone the proposals. The subject involves taking a position on many difficult questions, and great commitment and boldness are needed to create the career paths that will be most advantageous for our University’s development. Many thanks to Ann and Magnus, the commentators and other participants in the seminar! To be continued.

Johan Elf, Sanna Koskiniemi and Mattias Martinson commented on Ann Fust’s inquiry. Moderator: Pernilla Björk.
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