The international engagements of Swedish universities are currently being jeopardised by government policy. In December, an announcement was made regarding a halt in research funding, and on June 27 the Swedish Research Council announced that the government had changed its appropriation directions in such a way that the Council can no longer allocate funding as part of the call for development research. The decisions will strike a blow to successful and vital research, as well as our international collaborations and Sweden’s status as a research nation. They will also have a negative effect on both our competitiveness and growth over the long term.
For a small country like Sweden, whose prosperity is dependent upon international trade and collaboration within the EU, international research collaborations are a necessity. This perspective is self-evident, and it is therefore unsurprising that there have been many reactions to the government’s decision. Despite this, among the general public the first debate about funding was partly drowned out by the heated discussions about how the government wants to increase control over university boards as part of efforts to strength its security policy. In my view, these decisions are connected by a short-term perspective, and ignorance appears to be blocking properly considered decisions.
Firstly, the government decided to cut aid. Perhaps political signalling became more important than concern for the research collaborations covered by the funding. Whatever the case, it is lamentable because these collaborations, developed over a long period, have been established based on the insight that our solutions and problems are connected to those of others – just as is often highlighted in the debate surrounding climate and migration issues.
Swedish research funding can of course be improved and the reasoning behind the cuts may likely appear reasonable to many at a time when Sweden finds itself in a harsh economic situation – we are talking about large sums of money, after all. I have full respect for the fact that both aid and research funding need to be reprioritised. But if we think more broadly, it is easy to see that the compulsory slashing of research collaborations to the level of economically weaker countries puts vital values at risk for both Sweden and for global developments. A well-functioning system like the one that has been built up in the International Science Programme – ISP – risks coming to nothing after sixty successful years. Furthermore, the decision to make cuts goes against the initiatives Sweden is pushing at EU level, where the government says it wants to work for a Europe that stands stronger in the world, deepens international trade cooperation and takes the lead on issues such as digitalisation and climate change – based on a foundation of research and innovation. It is hard to see how this strategy could succeed if Sweden and other EU countries each cut their research collaboration programmes to the level of regions that are lagging furthest behind.
And then there is another killer blow – the change in the Swedish Research Council’s appropriation directions that throttles the call for development research, that is, research funds allocated from the aid budget. The decision means that the ongoing call for 2023, which is currently in the consideration process, will be halted with immediate effect.
This will hit hard across Sweden. If we only take Uppsala University as an example, it is a matter of almost SEK 110 million over five years. Excellent international research environments in fields such as Political Science, Women’s and Children’s health, Peace and Conflict research, Cultural Anthropology, Cell and Molecular Biology, Materials science, Physics and Astronomy, Information Technology and Medical Sciences will all be affected. This is no small intervention. The cuts are coming suddenly and will affect planning and staff both in Sweden and in partner countries. Projects will unexpectedly find themselves unfunded and established international collaborations will be put at risk. We at the University have reacted forcefully and are doing whatever we can to influence the situation in all of the collaborative bodies in which we participate.
I want to be clear that without international collaborations, a major part of our research would become marginalised. A research university is by definition part of a global arena. For those affected, it automatically leads to the realisation that Sweden needs a policy that makes it easier for universities to run the collaborations they require so that we can contribute to solving social problems and strengthen Sweden’s competitiveness and prosperity. For this reason, all measures that risk hindering efforts to deepen international collaborations must be carefully tested against principles such as proportionality and necessity. The actions of the government are regrettable and have been driven through without either an open process or a dialogue with concerned parties.
The government must take the responsibility incumbent upon it and mobilise the international collaborations that open doors for Sweden in the EU and globally.