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Lund is not Harvard

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Lund is not Harvard
A few weeks back it was announced that many hundreds of millions of our tax kroner were to be given to a small number of research groups at Swedish universities. Lund was declared the winner of this latest research funding lottery, because so many more groups in Lund received funding than anywhere else.
Like many other approaches to research policy these days, the idea with this extra funding is what might be called a reverse Robin Hood theory: take from the poor and give to the rich. In this case, the government and the Science Council (Vetenskapsrådet) have taken funds from the relatively poorly funded researchers in Swedish universities and given them to the relatively well funded researchers.
There is not only an unpleasant smell of elitism in the new approach to provide extra funding to a first division of research groups and let the vast majority of researchers fight over the crumbs that are left, so much like the way football and other professional sports are organized. Even worse, the new approach is not based on any particularly good evidence that elite groups in countries like Sweden do better research than non-elite groups. Rather, like so much of contemporary research policy, it is based on an illusion, the idea that universities like Lund can somehow become like Harvard and the other elite universities in the United States.
We see the same illusion at work in many of the research programs that are funded by the European Union. It is an obsession with elitism and with funding a few extremely big projects rather than many smaller projects, and it is, to put it bluntly, not the way to compete with the United States. It is rather a misguided attempt to “transfer” certain features of the United States into Europe, where they are simply inappropriate.
When it comes to scientific research, the main difference between the United States and Europe, including Sweden, is that the leading universities in the United States are private. That means that they have their own funding and operate like private companies, and that there is a very explicit first division, the so-called Ivy League, where professors are recruited much like professional football players.
In Europe, most universities are publicly funded which means that there are other considerations and other procedures involved in such matters as recruiting professors. Since salaries are fairly low, and working conditions are fairly poor at Swedish universities, in comparison to Ivy League universities such as Harvard and Yale, many professors at Swedish universities are selected for other reasons than pure academic merit. As a result, many of the hundreds of millions of kroner that are given to Swedish researchers are not able to be put to effective use, as has long been known by those who have looked into the matter.
As such, it is probably wiser to spread the funding of research in Sweden, and in Europe, more equitably. Lund will simply never be able to become Harvard. And if you ask me, it’s just as well. Once upon a time, I left Harvard to come to Lund.
Andrew Jamison

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