New Swedish Fellowship Program Aims to Give Young Researchers a Leg Up

A new funding program in Sweden aims to help young scientists from around the world bridge the gap between their postdoctoral years and their first academic position. The Wallenberg Academy Fellows program, announced yesterday by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation in Stockholm, will give generous start-up funds and access to positions in Swedish universities to 125 grantees over the next 5 years.

"We have to give [the young scientists] resources and secure positions so that they can do the difficult things," said foundation Executive Director Göran Sandberg.

The program will offer 25 awardees a year up to SEK 7.5 million (about €820,000) over 5 years, with no strings attached. Researchers from any nation or discipline are eligible, as long as they received their Ph.D. between 4 and 7 years before applying. Candidates must be nominated by a Swedish university, and the foundation has asked university officials to make sure that 40% of the nominees are not currently based in Sweden. Relocating scientists and dependents will get extra support for the move. The foundation will make it "really easy to move to Sweden," Sandberg said.

Interested candidates should get in touch with a Swedish university, Sandberg said. Five Swedish academies, including the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, will select the finalists, but the foundation will have the final say.

Swedish universities have also agreed to give the winners a position equivalent to an assistant professorship for the duration of the grant, along with a salary and lab space. And the fellows will be offered the opportunity to have a mentor at one of the academies, and the foundation plans to organize activities during the annual Nobel Prize awards so that the young scientists can interact with the laureates.

The effort, which was inspired by the European Research Council's (ERC's) Starting Grants program, has been envisaged as "a start-up package for young people to be competitive," Sandberg said. After the initial 5 years, awardees will be able to apply for another round of support from the foundation. They will also be able to compete for a full professorship.

Linking the money to a university position "seems like a very good idea," said Emma Sparr, a full professor in physical chemistry and colloidal biology at Lund University, although the requirement for universities to nominate the candidates "may lead to a less transparent selection process and represents a risk of involving some politics." The program is targeting a critical stage in a young researcher's career, when they have to get their research, group, funding, and teaching going all at once, added Sparr, who is a member of the Young Academy of Sweden. With such funding, you can start work on "real long-term projects and recruit some people to work with you on that." Three years ago, Sparr won a similar long-term grant—a Future Research Leaders grant from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF)—which gave her SEK 8.5 million over 5 years. The stable funding put her into a position to do long-term and bolder thinking for her research, she said. It also gave her more confidence and visibility, which made it easier to start collaborations.

Fellowships with "the size and scope" of the Wallenberg program, however, have "not been available before" in Sweden, says Anders Björklund of the University of Lund's Wallenberg Neuroscience Center. The SSF's Future Research Leaders grants, for example, have been awarded to 18 to 21 relatively established scientists in strategic fields every 3 years. In contrast, the new fellowship program is targeting "that part of the career which is more uncertain. … I expect that this will become an important encouragement for young people to stay in research, the best ones, and to develop," Björklund added.

The deadline for nomination is April 2012, with the winners expected to be announced in November. For more information, see the foundation's Web site.