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Researcher Emma Hansson at work at SciLifeLab. The research environment in molecular life sciences received the highest ratings in an evaluation of strategic research. (Photo: SciLifeLab)

Strategic investment yields progress

Published May 25, 2015

Two strategic research areas at KTH Royal Institute of Technology attain the very highest grade, world class, in a recent evaluation. The other research areas have a little way still to catch up.

This was a fairly expected result, according to the Vice President for Research Arne Johansson, who is keen to review how control of the research collaborations works in practice.

The investment in strategic research areas (SFO), an effort by the Swedish government in certain selected areas initiated a few years ago, is the single largest ever. Just over SEK 5 billion has been distributed to 43 different research environments with the potential to carry on world leading research. KTH has participated in 11 research areas, of which five as the host university.

Johansson believes that the investment, considered as a whole, has been very successful – KTH has built up strong collaboration with other higher education institutions. Several research groups have developed into excellent research environments with the aid of solid and long-term funding. He says that this has also led to a very positive development in the collaboration between different universities.

Arne Johansson, Vice President

Are you satisfied with KTH’s results in overall terms?
“Not altogether. We have received many accolades but also some criticism. We take this to heart and will see what we can do to become even better in several areas.”

KTH succeeds best in molecular science, coordinated by SciLifeLab, and e-Science. Both research environments are at the cutting edge, it is noted in the evaluation from the Swedish Research Council, Vinnova, Formas and the Swedish Energy Agency.

The three other areas that KTH coordinated: namely transport research, process engineering and IT and mobile (wireless) communications, do not quite achieve the same level. Nevertheless, they have good prospects of growing even stronger, in Johansson's view. He characterises them as being very dynamic and operating in areas that are of strategic importance for KTH.

“We cannot be world leading in everything we do; one has to accept that not all research environments obtain the highest grade. They have had different basic preconditions and have started from different levels,” he says.

Major investments from several funding providers are ongoing in these areas. Meanwhile, increased national and international interaction with different research groups offers good prospects for all five strategic research areas to grow stronger, he points out.

The evaluation highlights KTH’s recruitment focus on younger faculty with high international status and the investments made in leading lab environments. At the same time, there is a question mark concerning the strategic management of the research areas.

Which critical viewpoints from the evaluation are most important for KTH to listen to?
“Some of the criticism relates to the steering role of the central leadership – that we should manage more actively. As far as we are concerned, it is essential to have a dialogue with the management of the research areas concerning what is appropriate to act on, but it’s really not up to the KTH management to dictate and micromanage,” Johansson says.

He is keen to see an increased impact and coverage of the research in the academic world. Those carrying out the evaluation state that while the publications have increased, the number of citations in certain research areas do not maintain a sufficiently high level.

“It’s essential to introduce a long-term perspective also in applied research. It’s necessary to choose general problems to achieve the scientific eminence that makes a stronger impression on the research community as a whole,” Johansson says.

The evaluation team also offers recommendations for future allocation of strategic research funding; here it is proposed that KTH receives funding at the same level as previously. This autumn it is expected that the government will decide on the government grant being perpetuated as basic research funding.

Christer Gummeson