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Raising the next generation

The Nordic countries are well known for the high quality of their research. Young scientists today are however struggling and find it difficult to follow a rather undefined career path. Several initiatives now promote young scientists in order to keep the Nordic success up and running.

One of these is the Young Academy of Sweden, “Sveriges unga akademi”, initiated by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS). “There is a clear need for a forum for young scientists and no such thing did exist in Sweden,” says Anna Sjöström Douagi, director of the Young Academy. In order to get started fast some of the top young researchers of the country were invited to join the academy. Criteria were high quality of research, the willingness to interact across different research fields and a genuine interest for the promotion of science.35 out of 86 applicants were invited to an interview; in the end 22 candidates were selected to form the first academy for young scientists in Sweden. “The role of the RSAS has been mostly the same than of a midwife. Now that we are born we have to make it on our own,” says Anna Sjöström Douagi jokingly.

Top researchers working for everybody’s interest

The association to a club of the elite does not lie far away, bearing in mind that only the most successful young researchers are members of the Young Academy. Anna Sjöström Douagi emphasizes that the academy is dealing with problems that all young researchers encounter – one example being the undefined career path and the insecurity that is common in the academic world. “We are looking for more structure. Once young people chose the academic career path they should know what is expected of them and they should be evaluated on the way – naturally not everybody can become a top researcher within their field but those who embark on the journey should have good conditions to get there,” says Anna Sjöström Douagi.

Demands on politicians

The young scientists meet on a regular basis and discuss science and related issues. “Once they are all in one room the atmosphere is bubbling, there are a lot of interesting and rewarding discussions going on, both about science and related issues. The advantage with young scientists is that they still feel that anything is possible and it is amazing to experience that spirit,” says Anna Sjöström Douagi. At a recent meeting the Young Academy finished a proposal for the forthcoming Research and Innovation Policy Bill 2012. It include fostering of the academic mobility, long term supply of knowledge and investing in individual creative researchers.

Largest initiative ever

In the spirit of supporting individual young researchers, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation decided to set up a unique career program for young researchers called the Wallenberg Academy Fellows. The program, which is the Foundations’s largest initiative ever, will provide funding of 1,2 billion SEK over a period of five years to 125 young researchers.
“We have to invest in science with a good quality, the future depends on the young researchers,” says Göran Sandberg, executive director of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, explaining the background of the initiative.

He expresses his concern that too few young Swedish researchers establish themselves within the international elite. Groundbreaking science is done when the researchers are willing to take risks and take on projects with an uncertain outcome, given the shortsighted funding that a lot of young scientists experience those kind of projects are anything but a given choice.

Universities nominate their candidates

The universities are given the opportunity to nominate a certain number of candidates. By doing so the universities also guarantee to provide at least half of the salary. Criteria for the young scientists are their scientific achievements, independence and ability to be creative and to break new scientific ground. 40% of the fellows will be recruited externally.
“We wanted to avoid too much internal recruitment, at the same time there should be an opportunity to promote those promising young scientists that already are working at the same university. I really hope that the universities will use the opportunity to both recruit international talent and to take home talented Swedish researchers who are currently gaining more competence and insights abroad,” explains Göran Sandberg.

Focusing on the individual

Nominations include CV, publication list and project proposal like many other applications for funding.
“But it will be very important to be able to motivate the research program and what you are about to do. We accept wild and crazy projects as long as the candidates can motivate them. We really want to promote the qualities of the individual rather than strategically chosen projects,” says Göran Sandberg
Young scientists who feel that they have what it takes to become a Wallenberg Academy Fellow are welcome to approach the university where they want to carry out their research themselves. The Foundation is planning to advertise in the scientific journals Nature and Science to attract the best researchers internationally.

The future

Even the young researchers will grow older and will then not qualify for certain types of funding. Göran Sandberg hopes that the researchers who have been part of the program will have gained so much competence that they will do well in competition with others. Also the Young Academy is only open for members for five years. “We want to keep the academy young and will work with constant renewal,” says Anna Sjöström Douagi, adding that there might something like an alumni-network for the “retired” members of the Young Academy. Both Göran Sandberg and Anna Sjöström Douagi are convinced about the potential of the young scientists and hope to see some of them receiving a prize out of the hand of his majesty the King one day. “I made sure that our chairman, Helene Andersson Svahn, was invited to the Nobel Prize banquet. That is always a start,” concludes Anna Sjöström Douagi.

Quick facts: Young Academy of Sweden

The aim of the academy is to
• Create a forum where young scientists can engage in a scientific dialogue across research fields and get ideas for new hypotheses
• Encourage young scientists to use their scientific expertise to improve the conception of science in the public
• Make it possible to cooperate and improve Swedish research politics
• Create a national forum for the leading scientists of the future
• Create a forum where young scientists can establish networks with other young academies and scientists globally

Quick facts: Wallenberg Academy Fellows

The program has been initiated in close collaboration with Swedish university vice-chancellors, The Royal Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA), the Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA), the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (RSAS), the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiques (KVHAA) and the Swedish Academy. The universities are to nominate researchers who will be evaluated by the academies, whereupon the Foundation will make the final selection, and the universities will assume long-term responsibility for the selected researchers’ work.