Dialogue Seminar for Research Funders and Higher Education Institutions

I would like to start by welcoming everyone warmly to a new semester, my second at BTH. Now we are moving towards brighter times (you may interpret that in the way you want)!

I am just coming from the annual dialogue seminar between HEIs and research financiers, arranged by SUHF. It is an excellent initiative and I have participated several times as a pro-vice-chancellor at Chalmers. Together we build Sweden’s future, and we share the goal of strengthening Sweden’s position as a knowledge and research nation. We do pretty good, according to most ways of measuring, but we do not really get the research quality in terms of citations that the total amount of available research funds would justify. This is compared to the best countries in this measure. However, the opinions differ as to the reasons why we have ended up behind, and how to improve the situation. The meeting was held in a constructive spirit and many interesting aspects emerged. I present a small selection below; a more detailed report will surely be available on the SUHF’s web.

Open science

The dialogue meeting was divided into three parts. The first was about Open Science, i.e. open access to research publications and research data. There are several reasons to make publications and data publicly available, especially those financed by tax funds. Increased quality, faster development and democracy are some aspects. As far as publications are concerned, the transition to open access has so far resulted in increased costs for higher education institutions. The publishers take the opportunity to charge for making our (!) publications openly available, while at the same time they sell the same publications to us in the form of expensive subscriptions. It is not difficult to realize that this is not a sustainable solution. Therefore, negotiations with most publishers on a Swedish national level have been taking place for a long time. Most of these have now landed in what can at least be said to be acceptable transition solutions. Negotiations with Wiley are ongoing, while we are currently taking a position on an offer from Springer Nature. As far as Elsevier is concerned, we find ourselves, as you probably know, in a situation where Swedish universities have canceled the subscription since this summer. It is interesting to note that this does not seem to hinder our researchers much, but it is perhaps too early to draw any conclusions. Wilhelm Widmark from Stockholm University reported that SU, like us, has given its researchers the opportunity to order articles from Elsevier through their library. Thus, 335 articles have been ordered during the past six months, at a cost of about SEK 50,000. Without knowing the exact figure, I find that it is considerably less than the cost of the subscription. Should we move on with more publishers?

There are many difficulties when it comes to research data. We have many players, even at national level. There are uncertainties regarding the actual accessibility, which data is to be shared (raw data or metadata, all data or only those used in a particular publication?), ethical aspects, confidentiality etc. It seems that Sweden has lagged behind the leading European countries on this issue, but this is not necessarily too bad if we can follow good examples. One important thing, however, is that we do not make the same mistake again and let the publishers take over our data. Elsevier is of course very interested!

I have mentioned in an earlier blog that the transition to open science must harmonize with our way of evaluating research merits. In recent decades, we have largely gone from reading and evaluating publications to just looking at where they are published. It is one of the basic reasons why we are now sitting in the lap of the publishers. On the one hand, we tell our researchers to publish in journals with reasonable conditions for open accessibility. On the other hand, their publications are not valued at all from this perspective, but only after the magazine’s prestige. This is not sustainable, and I cannot see that we can get away from evaluating each publication according to its content and possibly its citation number (when enough time has passed so that this can be measured). One can also consider alternative ways of measuring the impact of research, so-called “altmetrics”. The number of downloads is an example of this.

Research evaluation

Part two was about evaluations as an instrument for quality assurance and quality enhancement of Swedish research. In the introductory speech, Sven Stafström from the Swedish Research Council recommended peer review based evaluations with the support of quantitative data. The latter will measure the quality of the research and its “importance”. It is not surprising, given VR’s FOCUS investigation, which was presented a few years ago. Sven further argued for the need for a national consensus, with UKÄ as a coordinating body. I believe that this would be valuable, even for us at BTH, when, in a not too distant future, we need to carry out our own evaluation.

The comments were many and the discussion lively. Among other things, Hans Ellegren from KVA (the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) meant that what drives research quality is mainly different from what is normally included in research evaluations. Things such as meeting places, collegial discussion, gender equality work, internationalization, long-term thinking, follow-up, rejuvenation, seminar culture, etc. were highlighted. An important component is how we succeed in recruiting, and in addition how we dimension our faculty. Most financiers seem to mean that we, the universities, constantly strive to hire for the last crown, which leads to dilution of the faculty funds and ultimately reduced quality. Actually, I tend to agree with that analysis. Lars Hultman from SSF emphasized the importance of including collaboration as an important component of research evaluation. I share that view. However, Lars was doubtful that funds should be transferred from research financiers to basic funding, which is something announced by the former government and advocated by SUHF, and this is also an important component of the STRUT investigation. In a previous blog, I referred to an investigation by Stephen Wang, which actually shows a negative correlation between the number of citations and the share of externally funded research.

Co-financing and counter-financing

The last part of the seminar was about a phenomenon that has grown strongly in recent decades: a large part of our external funding provides insufficient contributions to cover indirect costs, i.e. they require co-financing. In many cases, counter-financing is also required, which means that we have to add additional resources, which often have to come from our own faculty funds. This greatly limits the freedom of action of the HEIs. Anna Dubois from Chalmers, who succeeded me as a pro-vice-chancellor, presented Chalmers new faculty model. It is a model that I worked with for several years as a pro-vice-chancellor. The basic principle is to largely control the use of the own departmental funds to finance the permanent faculty, i.e. increase the degree of basic funding. Chalmers then came from a situation where even professors were largely financed by externally funds. This was often referred to as a “researcher’s hotel”. The requirements for co-financing and counter-financing were solved with a large number of special initiatives from the Vice-Chancellor, often decided in an ad hoc manner. The new faculty model is partly based on limiting the faculty to enable up to 75% basic funding (with both basic education and research funding) and partly to move the bulk of the responsibility for co-financing and counter-financing to the departments. The model will strengthen the ability for strategic balancing and at the same time enable more brave research ventures. The biggest obstacles to implementing the model are precisely requirements for co-financing and counter-financing, and also difficulties in financing infrastructure for both research and teaching.

Those financiers who do not provide full cost coverage for indirect costs justify this because the HEIs must be prepared to account for some of the costs for the projects they are granted. They also continue to express a suspicion regarding our ability to streamline the administration and our transparency in how indirect costs are calculated. The so-called SUHF model is supposed to remedy this, so this part of the debate is quite frustrating. Furthermore, the financiers return to the phenomenon that we tend to replenish our faculty more than is healthy. I think they have a point here. It is probably also the case that many HEIs, including BTH, have incentives that reward the increase of the faculty at departmental level. There is an obvious risk that this leads to a sub-optimization that ultimately strikes back when everyone has increased, and the result is unreasonably little own resources per faculty member. I think we must deal with this problem in the same way that Chalmers has done.

21 January 2019