President’s editorial: We need a leading-edge mentality or we will fall behind

In my hand I’m holding a brand new research policy proposal for Sweden. The Government’s research and innovation bill for the next four years is part of a long-term strategy to ensure Sweden’s competitiveness.

It is gratifying to see that the Government – despite the pandemic and the significant economic stress that came with it – is proposing a substantial increase in resources for both independent research and innovation-driving activities. The ambition is clear: To make Sweden one of the most knowledge-intensive and innovative countries in the world. But everything hinges on how we implement the strategy.

Getting to the leading edge requires us to know where the leading edge is. A measure of research quality is the degree of citation – the attention that published research gets within the global scientific community. New and interesting results are widely distributed and results that other researchers consider to be reliable find their way into the scientific evidence base. The number of citations depends heavily on traditions in various research fields, but by comparing performance in different regions or countries it is possible to use citations as an average indicator of quality.

To evaluate scientific quality as objectively as possible, we often use the number of publications that are among the 10 percent most cited during a certain period. For example, in the CWTS Leiden Ranking, whose most recent analysis covers 2015–2018, the world’s top 100 universities have 17–30 percent of their publications among the 10 percent most cited. As usual the USA and the UK dominate the list. The Netherlands have seven and Switzerland six universities on the top 100 list. In Asia we find three universities from China and two from tiny Singapore at the same high level. In the Nordic countries one university each from Sweden, Finland and Denmark are close to the top.

I have had the opportunity to follow the progress of two universities that have been on a journey to become among the best in the world: EPFL in Switzerland and NTU in Singapore – the latter under the leadership of a Swedish President. In both cases the journey took a decade and required a systematic and unyielding focus on raising quality. The universities created clear career paths for tenured professors with strict criteria and requiring international evaluation before promotions were granted. All positions were announced internationally. Once professors were installed the university invested in ensuring that they had good conditions under which to work. This included a substantial starting package for new recruits followed by good, long-term basic resources. In both countries, government research funding, for which competition is significant, is also a strong driver of quality. For example, the Netherlands invests a smaller percentage of its GDP in R&D than Sweden does, but it is performing better. The country has fewer researchers per capita, but more resources per researcher. That’s how to build excellence.

Back to the Swedish research bill. We want to and we need to be a research nation to be reckoned with. We have good quality research here. But we are not in the lead – other countries are catching up and overtaking us. To handle the competition we must invest with gusto in excellence. This is also the foundation for successful innovation. Competition is essential in order to build excellence. We accept competition in sport – may the best person win. We need to be able to plug that attitude into research as well. But remember that we’re talking about a marathon, not a 100-metre sprint.