GENERAL ACADEMY MEETING. On Wednesday the Swedish Research Council’s area of Medicine and Health visited Sahlgrenska Academy, which was the second last stop on this year’s faculty tour. The meeting was mainly dominated by the situation for young researchers, however there were few junior researchers present in the audience.
Participating in the meeting were the Secretary General for medicine and health and Johan Nilsson, area coordinator. One alarming trend that they described is the dramatic decline of the number of approved grants for international postdocs in medicine and health in Sweden.
“The number of applicants is declining, and it is important to keep in mind that it is the number of applications that is the key figure for distribution. Unlike medicine and health, the number is increasing somewhat in science, and for humanities and social sciences the number is increasing even more”, said Johan Nilsson.
One piece of news for the 2018 call for applications is a project grant focused on pharmacology, where the Swedish Research Council has received money from the National Board of Health and Welfare for the call. In addition to that the consolidation grant will be reinstated, where people who defended their thesis between eight and twelve years ago will have the opportunity to receive a total of 12 million SEK.
Bigger and more grants
One current discussion in the area of medicine and health – and one where different members have different attitudes – concerns the balance between approval rate and the size of the grants. In 2008 the approval rate was at 30 percent, and the Swedish Research Council then made a general decision to increase the grant size but decrease the number of grants.
After protests against the strategic projects having a negative effect on the free project grants, all areas received a healthy addition last year, which raised the approval rate from 20 percent to 24 percent. This year as well the board has increased the field’s free project funds.
“Since a 24 or 25 percent approval rate felt like a reasonable level to be at we instead chose to increase the amounts available. Therefore the average grant has been increased by ten percent, and this year it is at 1,100,000 SEK”, Johan Nilsson explained.
The project grants from the Swedish Research Council in medicine and health are awarded in three levels: 800,000 SEK, 1,200,000 SEK and 1,800,000 SEK.
“As the Linné project is now being phased out we will receive more money from the board in the future, and the board allows the areas themselves to decide how the money will be best distributed. We will be spending the funds on project grants and starting grants, and now we are discussing whether it is time to raise the grants even more. 800,000 SEK will not get you very far. However, this would affect the approval rate”, said Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.
Claes Dahlgren, senior professor at the department of rheumatology and inflammation research, pointed out that the situation for the grant recipients varies greatly:
“For a young researcher with no employment a large part of that 800,000 SEK goes to their own salary, while for a lecturer or a professor that sum might function as a lubricant for their research activities”.
“We come across examples of young researchers who finance their salaries and do not have enough money left for the project, Jan-Ingvar Jönsson confirmed, while adding: Therefore the grants for young researchers are also higher, in order for them to continue conducting their research projects”.
“The first time I was granted funding from the Swedish Research Council I was given 50,000 SEK”, said Ingmar Skoog, professor at the section of psychiatry and neurochemistry and administrator of AgeCap – the centre of ageing and health. He continued by saying:
“At that time the grant from the Swedish Research Council was a quality label that helped you apply for funding from other financiers. There are other grant contributors than the Swedish Research Council”.
A call for more originality
Cecilia Bull, who is a researcher in the department of oncology and one of two chairmen of Future Faculty, asked what the general deficiencies in the applications from young researchers are that result in them not receiving grants from the Swedish Research Council. What part needs improvement?
“The international assessors group argued that it involves the research ideas, that there are inadequacies in innovation and originality. It is not often that the inadequacies lie in merits”, said Jan-Ingvar Jönsson.
The meeting also provided insight into the outcome of this year’s large call for applications from the Swedish Research Council. The Karolinska Institute once again received the majority of the funding but Johan Nilsson noted that the share given to the medical universities has decreased somewhat in last few years. The University of Gothenburg came second on the list of the schools that received the most money, closely followed by Lund University.
Jan-Ingvar Jönsson noted that the Swedish Research Council’s task is to support the best basic research in Sweden, which they do through open competition and an effective and competent peer review procedure.
The European Research Council gives men an advantage
The Swedish Research Council also functions as an advisor for the government, where the council provides recommendations for the future.
“It is an extremely important role for the Swedish Research Council. Since we are the largest public research financier we also take on a leading role in coordinating efforts with other financiers, in order to counteract the tendency to finance the same type of research and that the same people and the same project are granted funding”, said Jan-Ingvar Jönsson in his presentation.
The analysis conducted by the Swedish Research Council into how Sweden is performing in the ERC indicates that Sweden has not succeeded in bringing home these large allocations on the same level as other comparable European countries, such as Denmark and Switzerland. Jan-Ingvar Jönsson also commented that it is noticeable that equality is not as high on the list of research political agenda in the EU as it is in Sweden.
“ERC clearly shows that it favours male applicants, something that is not necessarily based on research programs and merits”.
One of the reports that the Swedish Research Council mentions is the Research Barometer, which serves as an indicator of how Swedish research holds up internationally. Other countries appear to have invested in more successful ventures, which have lead to better publications.
“We have a good research volume here in Sweden, but we are rarely the country behind the big breakthroughs”, Jan-Ingvar Jönsson noted.
Another publication mentioned by the Swedish Research Council is Good Research Practice, which is available for download on the council’s website (http://publikationer.vr.se/produkt/god-forskningssed/), in a new revised 2017 edition in both Swedish and English.
A large part of the Swedish Research Council’s budget, 1.9 million SEK, is tied up in the support of infrastructure. Roughly half of these funds are earmarked for the large projects ESS (European Spallation Source) and the MAX IV laboratory. The Swedish Research Council’s amount for project support is 2.8 billion SEK. A recent compilation done by the Swedish Research Council indicates that the council grants 1.75 billion SEK in total to the area of Life Science, a figure that is naturally dependent on how one defines Life Science.
The general academy meeting was followed by a smaller meeting where Eric Hanse afterwards describes the discussions as continually good. Also participating in the meeting were Håkan Billig, Göran Landberg, Claes Dahlberg, Peter Lönnroth and Ann Hellström. This conversation also revolved a lot around young researchers and their employment terms, and on this score there was a large consensus among the participants from Sahlgrenska Academy and from the Swedish Research Council. Many of these employment issues are treated on a government and department level, to which the Swedish Research Council and the universities can turn if they want to voice their opinions. The faculties also criticized how the Swedish Research Council has chosen to handle the ALF evaluations. Although the Swedish Research Council did not share in that criticism it was good that the faculty managed to present it, Eric Hanse said after the meeting.
The Swedish Research Council also mentioned the call for applications involving clinical treatment research, something that is not sufficiently familiar to the clinics that are applying for the grants. Sahlgrenska Academy is therefore planning on inviting them to an information meeting about this call after the holidays.
TEXT AND PHOTO: ELIN LINDSTRÖM CLAESSEN