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Bucking European Trend, Swedish Government Plans Major Science Investment

Hey, big spender. Swedish Education and Research Minister Jan Björklund.

Mikael Lundgren

STOCKHOLM—In a long-term effort to secure Sweden a place among the world's most competitive nations, the Swedish government has proposed to raise its spending on research and innovation significantly. A new plan calls for adding $609 million (SEK $4 billion) to the annual budget by 2016, a 13.2% increase. The hike would be implemented in steps, starting with $264 million in 2013.

"This is a research contribution at a historically high level," Education and Research Minister Jan Björklund told Swedish media at a recent press conference. Sweden is already a frontrunner, with 3.6% of GDP spent on research and development in 2009, the latest year for which the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has numbers available. Next year's budget, presented in Parliament on Thursday, will be finalized in December.

Under the plan, an Elite Program would get $45.8 million per year by 2016 to offer the country's best researchers an opportunity to start long-term risky projects, while $38 million annually will be used to attract top international researchers to Sweden and provide them with substantial resources for research. Both programs will be managed by the Swedish Research Council (VR), an agency within the Ministry of Education and Research. The plan also increases the universities' budgets by $137 million annually by 2016, without any earmarks.

The investment comes at a time when research budgets in many European countries are under pressure from an economic downturn that has been relatively mild in Sweden. "The Swedish economy is doing well. That makes this a golden opportunity for Sweden," says VR Director Mille Millnert. "There will be a unique window to integrate scientists" from abroad, Millnert says.

Many researchers have applauded the program. "It is a fantastic investment for the future," says Per Eriksson, the rector of Lund University in southern Sweden. "We do not know yet how this money will be awarded exactly, but it looks very positive for our universities."

But some say it doesn't address some of Sweden's problems. "The Elite Program is good in principle, but it arrives too late," says Christian Broberger, president of the Young Academy of Sweden. Excellent young scientists already know where to find competitive grants, he saysfor instance at the European Research Council and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research. "What we miss are job positions. Universities cannot guarantee junior investigators continuity," says Broberger, who says Sweden should adopt a U.S.-style tenure-track system.

"One must congratulate Sweden for having a visionary government which sees higher education and research as a central priority for the country's future," says Karl Tryggvason, a molecular biologist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. "However, simply introducing new funding programs will not be enough." Most Swedish institutions don't do enough to promote excellence within their ranks, Tryggvason says. Rectors and deans are mainly elected based on their qualifications as administrators, and aren't always qualified to support the very best research, he says.

The new money also benefits large research infrastructures. By 2016, $30 million yearly will go directly to the Science for Life Laboratory, a national center in Stockholm and Uppsala for large-scale research in bioscience, medicine, and environment. The European Spallation Source (ESS), a next-generation neutron-science facility, and MAX IV, a new synchrotron, will receive a total of $95.8 million and $15.3 million respectively over the next 4 years. (Both are based in Lund.) "As the host country and major owner [of ESS], Sweden sends important signals to the rest of Europe, ESS Director-General Colin Carlile said in a press release last week. That's "a significant point since we will de facto start the Construction of ESS during the early months of 2013," he said.