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About the government's strategic research initiative

Published: 19 April 2022

Before Easter, a meeting was held between the academy and research funders Formas, Forte, Vinnova and the Swedish Research Council.

They were in March 2021 commissioned by the government to develop a proposal for a new model for quality-based resource allocation of universities and colleges for research and education. doctoral level. An assignment that is often referred to by many as the government's model for designating profile areas.

The idea is to introduce a new model that is based on expert assessment of profile area applications from the higher education institutions in order to distribute increased direct research grants (basic funding). According to the government, profile areas should be high-quality strategic research initiatives that the higher education institutions themselves define. The new model thus replaces the current distribution based on quality indicators (bibliometrics and external funds) for new basic grants. Existing basic funding is not affected. All higher education institutions must be able to be allocated grants for at least one profile area.

The starting point for the model is that it, in a better way, will contribute to Sweden positioning itself as one of the host's foremost research and innovation countries and a leading nation of knowledge. Another argument is that the state's distribution of research funds must be long-term and create driving forces for high quality in all research.

The financiers must submit their final report to the government on 1 June 2022 and propose the introduction of the model from 2024 and payment of funds in 2025. The assignment does not include submitting proposals for the distribution of resources or conditions for the funds. Nor is it included to submit proposals for follow-up and evaluation of each university's profile area. The investment as such must, however, be evaluated after six to seven years.

One application from each university

After several meetings with representatives from the academy, there is now an adjusted proposal based on each higher education institution submitting ONE application that describes the selected profile area with any sub-areas. It is still not clear how clearly any sub-areas must be linked to the main profile area. It is up to the higher education institutions themselves to define their profile area, its focus and scope. The applications from the higher education institutions are therefore NOT compared with each other but must be assessed on the basis of their own merits.

The quality of the profile areas is proposed to be assessed by a panel of ten experts based on three components:

  • Scientific quality (the proposal proposes that this component be supplemented by an additional 2-3 experts, in addition to the ten experts)
    • Is the research in the profile area of the highest international quality and / or does it have the potential to reach there?
    • Is there potential in the profile area for research breakthroughs and innovative research?
    • Is the research feasible and is there sufficient competence in the profile area?
    • Have ethical considerations been made?
  • Prerequisites for the profile area
    • Are the conditions such that the profile area can reach the goal of the highest international quality?
    • Is the university's commitment, the profile area's organization and the risk analysis carried out convincing?
    • Do the scope and composition of staff in the profile area provide good conditions?
    • Is the supply of skills good in the short and long term?
    • Is there adequate equipment and infrastructure?
  • Quality in collaboration with the surrounding society
    • Are strategies and processes for the profile area satisfactory for maintaining and developing quality in collaboration with the surrounding society?
    • Does the profile area's collaboration with the surrounding society contribute to strengthening the quality and relevance of research?
    • Is it clear that the described collaboration activities contribute to results (value creation) and solutions for the benefit of collaboration actors and the surrounding society?

During the meeting, several views came from participating Vice-Chancellors and other participants. At the overall level, we are still critical of the fact that basic funding is distributed through an application procedure. However, the government has clearly stated that all higher education institutions must be able to have at least one profile area. We interpret this as meaning that the intention of the initiative is for all relevant higher education institutions to use the profile areas for strategic development towards higher quality in research. Therefore, it would be reasonable that the focus for the external expert assessment of the profile areas should be on the expected value and significance of the selected profile area, how it strengthens the university and connects to the university's vision and strategy for the future.

Unfortunately, this is not the case and one reason for this is that the proposal is still too reminiscent of a distribution of project funds and is not adapted to the fact that it is basic grants that are to be distributed.The proposal is, for example, not adapted to the variety of different types of profile areas that will most likely be proposed from different higher education institutions, but risks through its proposed evaluation criteria to control and limit the higher education institutions' right to define what is a profile area at their own higher education institution .

The government's assignment states that the basic principle for the quality-based distribution of funds must be high scientific quality and that collaboration with the surrounding society is part of this concept of quality. Instead, the financiers' proposals state the highest international scientific quality and the concept of quality is divided into three components, which also include relatively detailed evaluation questions.

Highest international quality

Requiring research of the highest international quality can make it difficult for several higher education institutions to pass the evaluation. The requirement of 2-3 subject experts who assess the scientific quality in a proposed profile area also indicates that this component is given significantly greater weight compared to components two and three. The division into three components with underlying evaluation questions, all of which must be met, reduces, rather than increases, the possibility of profiling.

It would have been better with a smorgasbord of evaluation criteria for higher education institutions to choose from. The requirement for research breakthroughs risks, for example, steering towards basic research, while the requirement for collaboration with the surrounding society to strengthen the quality and relevance of research steers towards applied research, to provide two examples of governing evaluation criteria. An overall concept of quality would make it possible for a higher education institution to, in accordance with the government's intentions, define criteria such as innovation, collaboration, relevance, and thereby define the concept of quality for its own profile area.

Based on the extensive feedback given at the meeting, we now look forward to a revised proposal shortly.

Birgitta Bergvall-Kåreborn, Vice-Chancellor at Luleå University of Technology

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