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Q&A: Matilda Ernkrans, Sweden’s new Minister for Higher Education & Research

Matilda Ernkrans

We asked the new Minister about her goals and efforts when it comes to the country’s life science industry and Sweden’s status as an innovation and scientific research nation.

How are you going to make sure that Sweden retains its position as a strong research nation?

“We have to provide universities and researchers with the best conditions without detail control. We also need to have a good balance when it comes to funding from science financiers and the ability to make long term plans. At the same time it is important to have national competition in order to finance the best research. We also need to act immediately if we want to keep our status as a leading research nation and this is also an expressed ambition of the Prime Minister. It is important to have open research, but also that we meet global challenges. My perception is that we must find more distinct career paths in order to attract the best talents to science. For me it is also very important with an equal academy.”

How can we retain Sweden’s status within life sciences?

“That is interrelated with my previous answer. Life sciences is an important area and it is prioritized by the present government, as it has been by previous governments. We have a National Coordinator [Jenni Nordborg], an Office for Life Sciences and soon also a National Life Sciences Strategy, which we hope will lead to results that can be presented by the government.”

What’s your view on the collaboration with the Liberals and the Centre Party in this work? Are there any issues you find especially important to collaborate on?

“Our government today is founded on the fact that we collaborate with the Green Party, the Centre Party and the Liberals. We have a lot of exciting plans initiated from several points in the January agreement [Januariavtalet], for example competence provision in life sciences. It feels good and important to be able to take on these issues.”

What are your goals when it comes to the higher education system and what efforts would you like to see in order for these goals to be fulfilled?

“Higher education is an important foundation for a continued democratic and open society. I am not myself from a family of academics, neither my parents nor my grandparents were academics, but I had the possibility to study further and for me that was a way to grow as a person, to gain more knowledge and a broader understanding of that which is contemporary. I studied political science, political economy and sociology. It strengthened me as a human being and enabled me to work with something I wanted to. I am deeply engaged in giving more people access to higher education. We need to nurture education that is available all over the country, education that collaborates with and develops our society. For this, we need to find new ways forward, access to distance studies is important for example. We have to build a strong foundation so that more people get access to higher education regardless of class, gender and geography; those things should not be an obstacle. We hope that more people will choose academic professions and want to do research within academia and industry.”

You have expressed a wish for more cooperation between universities and the surrounding society. What advantages will this collaboration provide?

“It could enhance quality and the relevance of the research that the universities offer. Research and innovation must meet the challenges we are facing. I am very committed to continuing this work. Higher education creates opportunities. It is important that we maintain an up-to-date and ongoing dialogue between academia, students and future employers. This is a means to reach other goals.”

What efforts would you like to make when it comes to competence provision?

“I return to the issue of cooperation. Competence provision could happen between academia and other actors, by having a dialogue. Perhaps we need to adjust the education according to the existing lack of competence, but not only this. We have deficit areas where we need more people with higher educations to work. We provide a lot of common financing for education and research and we need even better ways to handle competence provision. We must look upon it as a lifelong learning process. Studies that raise the level of competence together with employment, for example, and we want to try and change the study assistance grants for those later on in life. Digitalization is also important in this matter, partly because of education within the profession and a career, and partly because distance education is built upon the fact that the technology works.”

How is Sweden going to retain and strengthen its position within innovation?

“In general Sweden is ranked high when it comes to innovation and I am very happy about that. One of the reasons for this is that we have an open and well-functioning cooperative climate; we are good at collaborating. The government has also been working on innovation-promoting factors, like incubators, for example. I would like to see that these kinds of efforts continue. The initiatives for innovation hubs can be very rewarding and collaboration between large and small companies within the health sector has huge potential when it comes to gaining new knowledge and new solutions for society.”

Looking at our Nordic neighbors, are you inspired by any of those countries’ efforts within research, higher education and/or life sciences?

“I still have many more visits to make, more to learn and take in. I have only been in this position for a few weeks, but according to what I have seen so far and what has caught my interest, it is for example Denmark, where they are well positioned when it comes to clinical trials, that I would like to study further and learn more. Finland is also working in an exciting way with health data and the digitalization of this data, and I see a lot of opportunities there.”

Today is International Women’s Day [March 8th] and you will hold the opening speech at the Karolinska Institute seminar on the theme “Counteract sexual harassment and genus-based vulnerability in academia”. Overall, what do you believe is important in this work and also what can be done to get more women in leading positions in academia?

“I have chosen to give the opening speech because I believe this is an exciting initiative that KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the Karolinska Institute have made. In a structured way they continue to drive raising awareness about sexual harassment and other genus-based shortcomings within academia. My entire life I have been engaged in issues of equality and I will continue to speak about finding new ways after #metoo. Many women testify about terrible assaults that no one should have to experience, but there are more women, an unrecorded number of women who have been prevented from taking their next steps in their academic careers. So this is a good initiative. I am also very committed to continue to work on strengthening employment security, for example. It is a fact that in an insecure employment it is easier to be exposed to harassments. The government has already made great progress here and we are now looking at what more can be done.”

Do you have a science role model?

“As a life science role model I would like to highlight my grandmother. She became a mother in 1942 and a couple of years later, as a single parent, she had to move back in with her parents, which could not have been easy. I do not know if she knew what kind of impression she made on me, but for example we had very important talks about the importance of birth control, partly because you are able to affirm your sexuality and partly because you could decide over your own body.”

Photo: Kristian Pohl/Regeringskansliet