University must concentrate focus on strong areas of research

The eminent London universities UCL and Imperial College, as well as the University Pierre and Marie Curie in Paris and Chalmers in Sweden, have all concentrated their focus on areas of research excellence and global challenges. Lund University should draw inspiration from their example, in the view of Pro Vice-Chancellor for research Sven Strömqvist.

Strategisk konferens

Sven Strömqvist (right) was the host for the conference and took a break on Universitetsplatsen with Camilla Modéer from the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) and Lars Börjesson from Chalmers.

On his initiative, the University organised a conference on the future of the strategic research areas. LU is the coordinator of nine such areas, including cancer, climate change, nano and diabetes, and participates in a further three. A national evaluation of all the strategic areas will be completed next spring, and those which pass the evaluation will receive continued government funding.

“However, the strategic research environments don’t necessarily have to look exactly the same in the future. It is conceivable that they might be broadened and collaborate with other areas”, says Sven Strömqvist.

While it is hoped that the strategic areas will receive continued funding, this is not the case for the Linnaeus environments. For the eight of LU’s Linnaeus environments that started in 2006, their government funding runs out in 2015. No continued national funding has been promised; instead, the idea is that each university takes over responsibility for their environments or decides to discontinue or alter them.

The conference was intended to provide a basis for the discussion on the future of LU’s strong research environments. The audience got to hear how Imperial College London has created new ‘institutes’ that will take on the grand challenges facing the world using interdisciplinary research. One example is the Lifelong Health Project, which has a focus on ageing and health and involves over 100 researchers.

Both Imperial College and University College London (UCL) emphasise that interdisciplinary research must be founded on excellent disciplinary research with a critical mass in each subject. The new initiatives being taken should not replace the disciplinary research, but rather complement it.

Chalmers think similarly. There, the traditional disciplines have been joined by eight ‘areas of advance’, for example energy, materials science and the built environment. The areas of advance cover all operations – research, education and innovation. From now on, the intention is that all research at Chalmers should have a base both in a traditional discipline and in one of the new areas.

However, placing all research into a limited number of areas is easier at a specialised institution like Chalmers than at a broad university like LU.

“A university of LU’s type neither should nor can do this exhaustively. UCL is also a broad university and has not done this. They have kept their traditional structure, but complemented it with a number of strong ‘research domains’. This has brought major dividends both in research funding and in other respects”, says Sven Strömqvist.

“What we can do in Lund is to try in the same way to identify a handful of broad, strong and preferably challenge-driven areas of research and fill them with the best relevant research environments we have. This could help to both unify and create a distinctive image for Lund University.”

Sven Strömqvist has experience of bringing together researchers from different disciplines from the establishment of the Humanities Laboratory. Its interdisciplinary expertise and new infrastructure have produced good results in terms of research, and he believes there are similar possibilities in a number of other areas at LU.

After the Research Board’s conference, an internal workshop was held for representatives of the strong research areas. Discussions will continue with the aim of achieving a ‘package’ to hand over to the new management when they take over.

“The present university management doesn’t have enough time left to carry out a mobilisation of the kind that has been done at UCL and Imperial College, for example. However, we can present what we think would be a good strategy for the future”, says Sven Strömqvist.

Text: Ingela Björck

Photo: Maria Lindh