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Investigating ways of improving Sweden’s standing in cutting edge research

Last December, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences released the results of a study aiming to compare the research system in Sweden with that of Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

The need for this analysis arose from the recognition that over the last two decades research conducted in Sweden with a major international impact has declined, especially when compared to the reference countries under study (Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland). This has been defined as the ‘top-decile index’, i.e., the 10% of most highly-cited scientific papers worldwide compared with the global mean. Nowadays, Sweden exceeds the world average for the ‘top-decile index’ by 15%, while Denmark and the Netherlands do so by 35% and Switzerland by 40%. In addition, the number of young researchers defined as being in the ‘top-decile index’ is lower in Sweden than in the reference countries.

Therefore, this study aimed to identify the reasons accounting for these differences, taking a historical perspective of the last 20 years and examining policy decisions taken at the governmental level, developments in universities’ governance and in their research funding systems. The authors of the study identify several elements that set Swedish universities apart from the ones in the reference countries, namely the stronger focus on collaboration with the local community and business sector, the dominance of external funding, the lack of in-house quality control as a basis for allocating faculty resources, and the inability to provide clear career paths and good conditions for young researchers (e.g., tenure-track positions).

The authors also propose several measures to foster sustainable scientific quality, ranging from funding to university governance and broader policy decisions. For example, the authors recommend that the ratio of in-house to external funding should be at least 60/40 and that a tenure-track system with basic funding should be put into place.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences