On collaboration and the mission of Higher Education Institutions

In BTH’s strategic plan, our overall assignment is stated as follows:

“BTH’s mission is to contribute to sustainable development of the society through higher education, research and innovation. The university stands for quality and collaboration.”

I think it is a good wording that clarifies what is expected of a university today, and in particular a technical university. Our areas of operation are higher education, research and collaboration; and the ultimate goal is to contribute to a sustainable societal development. If we are to make a decisive difference, we must conduct our business with high quality.

Focus and internal collaboration

Because we are a relatively small institute of technology with limited resources, we cannot maintain high quality in too many areas. Thus, we must be selective and aim for sufficient strength in the areas where we choose to be active. We must also strive to utilize our own resources in the best possible way through internal collaboration. We are already known today for being focused and we have many good examples of interdisciplinary collaboration. I believe that there are good opportunities to develop this further within the framework of our overall focus area as expressed in the strategic plan: “IT that integrates with other topics such as technology, health, economics, leadership and design”. I will try to create the conditions for increased internal collaboration in the coming years, and I believe that a key ingredient is to develop a collaboration culture, or “BTH spirit”, if you so wish.

What is high quality?

That we should have high quality in our operation may seem obvious, but it is not as clear what we mean by “high quality”. Based on the overall mission, it should mean to contribute as much as possible to a sustainable future. That is not a bad guideline now that we have a good understanding of the concept of sustainability through the 17 global sustainable development goals that the UN adopted in 2015. But how can we as a institute of technology contribute in the best way? In the small scale, it is about conducting our own business in a responsible manner. We will probably have the greatest long-term impact by equipping our students and doctoral students to be both employable and to be able to contribute to a transition towards more sustainable products and businesses in the workplaces where they end up, whether it is in the business sector or in the public sector. Our research can also, in the long term, contribute to sustainable development, and the chance increases the more attention it receives, i.e. that our publications are well spread and thus become more cited. In this way, the logic of our traditional way of measuring research quality is not entirely wrong. Someone may object that only applied research that directly connects to one of the 17 goals can contribute to a sustainable future, but I do not share that view. On the contrary, there are plenty of examples of fundamental results within e.g. mathematics and natural sciences which have subsequently been shown to have far-reaching applications of crucial importance (DNA, laser, GPS etc.). However, one can conclude that of our different activities, it is collaboration with our environment that has the greatest potential to give a direct and tangible impact on sustainability. We collaborate in different ways within our undergraduate education (VFU or “collaboration learning”, guest lectures, degree projects and other projects, etc.) and in research. The latter especially in direct collaboration projects with both companies and public actors, and in many cases this is a prerequisite for being able to obtain external funding for our research. Under the umbrella “collaboration” (what was previously referred to as “the third task”) I also want to include innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as informing and, to some extent, influence society. The latter may be about informing politicians and the general public about the state of knowledge regarding society’s challenges, and above all, preventing the dissemination of disinformation and non-factual claims. The most obvious example is, of course, climate change, but it can also regard other challenges such as health and energy. Society information does not necessarily link directly to our own education or research but can nevertheless have the greatest potential to contribute to sustainable development in the short term. Nevertheless, it is something that we do not have any direct incentives for, either on the personal level or for us as an institution. The question is whether that is sustainable in the long run?

Incentives for collaboration

In December 2018, the report “HEI’s collaboration with the surrounding society – starting points and principles” (in Swedish) was released from SUHF. It contains a number of standpoints from an expert group within SUHF. In general, I think it is an excellent report with wise and thoughtful views. In some paragraphs one can see difficulties with having a common framework to cover all the branches of science, but the authors do a good job. An important starting point is a broad definition of the concept of collaboration, in line with what I describe above. The next position is the goal of collaboration, which is benefit to the collaboration partner, for us as an institution (I mean that this is not just about the quality of education and research), and for society as a whole.

I do not agree with the expert group on the position that collaboration must be seen as part of education and research, not as a separate task. At least not for us as a institute of technology. It can limit the view when measuring the effects of collaboration and when collaboration skills are to be used as a qualification base, for example. BTH participates in the project “MerSam: Merit value of collaborative skills”, coordinated by the University of Borås. The project aims to develop our ability to use collaboration as the basis for employment and promotion. Here, of course, the definition of the concept of collaboration is crucial, and my hope is that this is not unnecessarily narrow. If one, as the expert group thinks, only assesses collaboration as part of “scientific, pedagogical or other” skill, then it will not lead to a noticeable change towards the current way of evaluating merits.

Another important stance in SUHF’s report is that ethical considerations must always be included when considering a collaboration effort. I mean, then, that it is most important to consider social benefits and the contribution to a sustainable future, and not just to respect academic core values. The report also takes a position that performance in collaboration could be a basis for allocation of grants to the higher education institutions, in the same way that scientific achievements have been for a long time. Such a model is in line with the previous research bill “Knowledge in collaboration” from 2016, and the former government has also given the collaboration a high importance in the performance-based distribution to the higher education institutions. The latter means that part of our share of government funding for research are based on our publications, amount and degree of citation, and our performance in collaboration, as judged by the government. It is a reasonable guess that the new government is on the same line, unless one completely abandons the model with algorithmized performance assignment of part of the funding. SUHF’s expert group argues that some form of subject normalization should be used in this context, in the same way that field normalization of citation data is done. It is a reasonable thought, but it is not obvious how it should be done.

Mats Viberg, Vice-Chancellor

27 February 2019