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The quest for funding

Applying for grants is part of the everyday life of Swedish researchers. But the task can be a time consuming and difficult project when the competition is tough.

During the last months, the question of the Swedish research climate has been a more debated issue than usual in Sweden, ever since the government presented its plan to invest SEK 4 billion in research and innovation. The plan is to “strengthen Sweden’s position as a prominent research nation” through investments made specifically towards more resources for universities and to develop cutting edge research. The main highlights are USD 100 million investments in SciLifeLab, a center combining research infrastructure with knowledge in translational medicine and molecular bioscience, in order to translate discoveries into both tools and therapies.
Another USD 200 million will be invested in drug discovery, clinical research, antibiotic resistance research, health in aging and the use of patient registers. In total, the investments will involve SEK 11.5 billion over the years 2013-2016. The plan is to “create conditions enabling Sweden to continue to be a competitive knowledge-based nation, where high-quality research and innovation contribute to a high level of growth, a strong capacity for innovation and highly qualified jobs.”

Taking risks
Recently the Swedish Minister for Education, Jan Björklund, presented a proposition for boosting Swedish research even further. Among other things he emphasized the rewarding of academics who take risks, by introducing a new system for awarding research grants. Aside from academic merit, grants will be given out according to what foreign researchers see as the potential of the research area and how it may benefit society. According to Björklund, previous publications play too great a role when grants are awarded.

The new proposition involves an increase in the percentage of funding that is allocated on the basis of quality criteria, from the current 10% to 20% in 2016. The Swedish Research Council will develop the new system, which is expected to give out its first grants in 2018.
“I think that most people were happily surprised about getting more money for the entire research field. At the same time it is a challenge for us to make sure that it will be divided out in an optimal way. We are in the constant process of listening to the demands of both politicians and the general public,” says Jonas Björck, Director of the Department of Research Funding at the Swedish Research Council.

Finding the time
According to Björck, the primary aim of the Research Council is to support top quality science. The process of applying for grants is done through open calls for proposals and an open competition. There are some problems with the application process that have been discussed during the past years, one of the topics being the time frame. Maria Abrahamsson, an assistant professor in Physical Chemistry, at the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Chalmers University of Technology, is one of many that struggle to find time for preparing applications between working on her research projects.
“A few weeks ago I had to take one week’s vacation in order to make time for my application,” she says. “I don’t know how common it is. You have to find a strategy that works. But in the long run it’s definitely worrying that you can’t find time to do this during office hours.”

Jonas Björck is well familiar with the problem and hopes that the new government investments will open up for new ways to rationalize the process.
“This has been debated for some time now and I completely understand the worry and that it is a troublesome and time-consuming process for many. I have a hard time seeing that the entire application process would be structured in a completely different way. There would still be the need to describe your project plan. I will say though that we are developing a new IT-system to facilitate the procedure. Researchers will be able to store their resumé and update it with new information, in order to simplify and rationalize the process.”
“To evaluate the quality of research on a regular basis can be useful, in addition to the formulating of applications. But of course, there has to be time to perform the actual research. The biggest part of the research budget is the basic funding awarded to the universities, which will now be further enhanced,” says Peter Honeth, State Secretary to Jan Björklund.

Uncertain future
“Finding the time creates stress,” says Maria, as does knowing that her employment will end in September 2014 while she will have two postgraduates under her supervision until 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“According to my experience, it’s vital to have postgraduates under your supervision in order to improve your chances of qualification for funding. The only problem is, once you’ve received grants for them, you know that you’re already going out of the system. It’s a stressful situation, knowing you have the moral responsibility for someone else’s future, especially since they have chosen to do research on your specific project. I’ve heard of other people in a similar situation that have been forced to leave and then had to supervise their postgraduates in their spare time, since there wasn’t anyone else competent enough to take over. That isn’t really an ideal situation.”
“If I’m not able to find money for my salary, I don’t know what will happen to them. I’m prepared to work a lot with something that I’m dedicated to, of course. However, I hadn’t counted on spending so much of my time on assignments not related to science. I quite enjoy writing applications from time to time and setting up a project, but not as much as I would if you knew you weren’t completely depending on the money.”

Tough competition
Besides working against a ticking clock, another issue that has been discussed is the difficulty in acquiring funds. Sweden is among the group of nations worldwide that devote the most money to research and development (R&D) in relation to gross domestic product (GDP). But it is far from everyone who will be granted money.
“It is a tough competition,” says Björck. “We have an average of a 25 percent success rate, i.e., the amount of applications that will finally be approved for grant awards. Even if we have a proper budget of nearly 5 billion SEK, there are more people applying for funds than will receive them.”
According to Maria Abrahamsson, the task isn’t much easier if you are starting off as a younger scientist, not having had the chance to establish yourself yet. Jonas Björck agrees that there is a risk that young researchers that are not yet inside the system can be disfavored.
“Therefore, it is an important part of our work that we make sure that they get possibilities early in their careers to develop. At the same time, I also hear criticism that we are gearing too many resources towards the younger researchers. We mustn’t forget to invest in those who are already established.”
“It is important that the research councils look not only at historic accomplishments but also review what potential a project can have in the future,” says Peter Honeth.

Looking at new approaches
Jonas Björk says that the Research Council is looking at several approaches to improve the conditions for younger researchers, one being a new project grant where they will get up to 75 percent of their salary. There will also be an additional SEK 25 million to recruit young researchers. Maria Abrahamsson has hopes that the new investments will lead to good developments and thinks that the peer review system is a good suggestion, getting “some perspective from international colleagues” as a solution to the difficult task of evaluating research.
“In my experience it’s a risky business to put your heart into something completely new. If you want to receive another few years of funding, you have to publish in between. And from what I have seen, it is very rare to come far with a groundbreaking project if you’re not already an extremely well established scientist. If you don’t think the idea will turn into any publications, then you wind up not taking the risks that Jan Björklund is talking about.”
“The most important factor is that the communication between researchers and politicians is improved. It’s not easy to get a good picture about the real world of science if you’re not in it,” she concludes.