Sweden's SciLifeLab Gets Fresh Funding

Jan Björklund, Sweden's minister for education

Mikael Lundgren/Government of Sweden

A pathbreaking Swedish life science research initiative is getting a fresh infusion of funds. The private Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation will be donating $33.4 million, and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca between $5 million and $10 million annually over the next 5 years, to Sweden's Science for Life Laboratory (SciLifeLab), Jan Björklund, Sweden's minister for education, announced earlier this week. The Swedish government later this year will also announce new funding for the 2-year-old collaboration between four Swedish universities, he said.

"We have high ambitions," Björklund said at a 3 April press conference in Stockholm. The new funds will enable SciLifeLab "to gather the sharpest brains and lay the foundation for new and major breakthroughs."

In a strategic bid to create a national life sciences powerhouse, Sweden committed $75 million in 2010 to create SciLifeLab, which was established by Uppsala University, Stockholm University, Karolinska Institutet, and the Royal Institute of Technology. It has two branches, in Stockholm and Uppsala, which focus on projects such as proteomics studies and bioimaging. An initial centerpiece is an effort to sequence the genome of the Norway spruce, a large and complicated genome. Last year, SciLifeLab researchers also joined an effort to sequence the genomes of microbes living in the Baltic Sea.

The new funding will help fuel continued expansion. The Stockholm center will add 4000 square meters of laboratory and office space in June and will add another new building next year, officials say. Similar expansion is under way in Uppsala, where construction is expected to begin in May on additions that will push total lab and office space to 11,000 square meters by 2013.

Administrators are also planning a new phase of recruitment with an aim of expanding the center's staff—now about 300 at the two locations—to about 1000. "This investment will enable us to attract leading scientists and innovative research to come to Sweden," predicts Eva Åkesson, president of Uppsala University.

One field targeted for fresh resources is biomedicine. "Since we started 2 years ago, we [have] set up all the necessary infrastructure," says Mathias Uhlén, director of SciLifeLab, Stockholm. Now, researchers "want to use the tools … to move forward to more clinical projects and personal medicine." For example, Uhlén's initiative to map all human proteins, the Human Protein Atlas, is now about two-thirds of the way to its goal, with plans to finish in 2015.

Some Swedish researchers have mixed feelings about SciLifeLab's growth. "I feel ambivalent," says neuroscientist Ola Hermanson of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. "I welcome the initiative of our minister to give his attention to genetics and molecular biology, but I really hope that the government money will not just go directly to SciLifeLab but rather be distributed through a peer-reviewed competition process."

"The goal to recruit researchers from abroad is very welcome," notes Christian Broberger, vice president of the Young Academy of Sweden, a part of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences focused on younger researchers. But he says that to attract outside talent, Swedish universities will need to implement reforms, including "a sorely lacking transparent tenure-track system."