I was recently invited to review a manuscript for a journal (1). After half the time to review deadline had passed, I received a mail stating that “In the interest of your time and the authors’ time, I am making a decision without the benefit of your input.” While I do understand that big journals receive many submissions and that the editor made this decision in the interest of time, I think that it should also be kept in mind that I had already spent approximately three hours scrutinizing the manuscript. Due to the decision of the editor, these are now three hours of work down the drain.
Furthermore, I was not informed what the decision was, and my access to the paper in the reviewing system was revoked. This means that I don’t even know if my opinions are concordant with the rest of the reviewers or not. Perhaps I had actually spotted crucial errors that the other reviewers had missed? Or maybe the paper was rejected, and my input was therefore no longer needed. I don’t know, because I was not informed.
These days, I receive many requests to perform manuscript reviews. A journal treating its reviewers like this causes me to lose all willingness to review for that journal again. To me, making a decision to dismiss reviewers without even asking them if they are about to submit comments, signals that a journal does not value its peer reviewers, and that I can spend my time better elsewhere. Similar to authors and editors, I do not want to waste my time on tasks that end up being of no use.
On the upside, this decision by the editor has freed some time for me to write up this rant, including the following advice: If you are an editor of a journal and you want to keep the reviewers (who, I remind you, work for free and are largely unrecognized for their work) happy, try to avoid pissing them off by dismissing their work. It does not hurt to ask them if they are about to submit their comments, or if they – given that a sufficient number of review reports have been submitted – would rather withdraw from the review process. This may add an extra day or two to the process, but I think that in the long run both authors, editors and reviewers would agree that the overall quality of the peer review process would benefit from those few extra days.
- I am not going to name the journal here, nor the identity of the editor, because that is not my point. I am not after singling out certain people here, but I want to address an overall behavior that annoys me. That said, the last three papers I have been a co-author on in this journal took five to seven weeks from the authors correction of the proofs until publication online. I find it stunning that with these delays, the journal dismisses the reviewers it has invited because they don’t produce peer reviews quicker than the deadline proposed by the journal. The real bottleneck in this process is not extensive review times, at least not in my experience.
In the most recent issue of the Medicine Maker (#0416), there is a short opinion piece by me and Joakim Larsson, in which we argue for that pharmaceutical companies should live up to their ethical responsibilities, and may actually benefit from doing so (1). We were invited to write for the Medicine Maker based on our recent papers on proposed limits for antibiotic discharges into the environment (2) and minimal selective concentrations (3).
We argue that now as PNECs for resistance selection are available, they should be applied in regulatory contexts. The recent O’Neill report on antimicrobial resistance (commissioned by the British Government) specifically highlighted the urgent need for enforceable regulations on antibiotic discharges (4). The concentrations we reported in our Environment International paper (2) can be used by local, national and international authorities to define emission limits for antibiotic-producing factories, but also for pharmaceutical companies to assess and manage risks for resistance selection associated with their own discharges.
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Time to limit antibiotic pollution. The Medicine Maker, 0416, 302, 17–18 (2016). [Paper link]
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Concentrations of antibiotics predicted to select for resistant bacteria: Proposed limits for environmental regulation. Environment International, 86, 140–149 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.015 [Paper link]
- Lundström S, Östman M, Bengtsson-Palme J, Rutgersson C, Thoudal M, Sircar T, Blanck H, Eriksson KM, Tysklind M, Flach C-F, Larsson DGJ: Minimal selective concentrations of tetracycline in complex aquatic bacterial biofilms. Science of the Total Environment, 553, 587–595 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2016.02.103 [Paper link]
- Review on Antimicrobial Resistance: Antimicrobials in agriculture and the environment: Reducing unnecessary use and waste (J O’Neill, Ed,) (2015). [Link].
Yesterday was an intensive day for typesetters apparently, since they put two of my papers online on the same day. This second paper was published in Environment International, and focuses on predicting minimal selective concentrations for all antibiotics present in the EUCAST database (1).
Today (well, up until yesterday at least), we have virtually no knowledge of which environmental concentrations that can exert a selection pressure for antibiotic resistant bacteria. However, experimentally determining minimal selective concentrations (MSCs) in complex ecosystems would involve immense efforts if done for all antibiotics. Therefore, efforts to theoretically determine MSCs for different antibiotics have been suggested (2,3). In this paper we therefore estimate upper boundaries for selective concentrations for all antibiotics in the EUCAST database, based on the assumption that selective concentrations a priori must be lower than those completely inhibiting growth. Data on Minimal Inhibitory Concentrations (MICs) were obtained for 122 antibiotics and antibiotics combinations, the lowest observed MICs were identified for each of those across all tested species, and to compensate for limited species coverage, we adjusted the lowest MICs for the number of tested species. We finally assessed Predicted No Effect Concentrations (PNECs) for resistance selection using an assessment factor of 10 to account for the differences between MICs and MSCs. Since we found that the link between taxonomic similarity between species and lowest MIC was weak, we have not compensated for the taxonomic diversity that each antibiotic was tested against – only for limited number of species tested. In most cases, our PNECs for selection of resistance were below available PNECs for ecotoxicological effects retrieved from FASS. Also, concentrations predicted to be selective have, for some antibiotics, been detected in regular sewage treatment plants (4), and are greatly exceeded in environments polluted by pharmaceutical pollution (5-7), often with drastic consequences in terms of resistance gene enrichments (8-10). This is a central issue since in principle a transfer event of a novel resistance determinant from an environmental bacteria to an (opportunistic) human pathogen only need to occur once to become a clinical problem (11). Once established, the gene could then spread through human activities, such as trade and travel (7,13). Importantly, this paper:
- Provides upper boundaries for selective concentrations (MSCs) for 111 antibiotics
- Predicts no effect concentrations (PNECs) for resistance selection
- Can guide implementation of compound-specific emission limits based on the provided concentrations
The paper is available under open access here. We hope, and believe, that the data will be of great use in environmental risk assessments, in efforts by industries, regulatory agencies or purchasers of medicines to define acceptable environmental emissions of antibiotics, in the implementation of environmental monitoring programs, for directing mitigations, and for prioritizing future studies on environmental antibiotic resistance.
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Concentrations of antibiotics predicted to select for resistant bacteria: Proposed limits for environmental regulation. Environment International, 86, 140-149 (2016). doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.10.015 [Paper link]
- Ågerstrand M, Berg C, Björlenius B, Breitholtz M, Brunstrom B, Fick J, Gunnarsson L, Larsson DGJ, Sumpter JP, Tysklind M, Rudén C: Improving environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceuticals. Environmental Science and Technology (2015). doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b00302
- Tello A, Austin B, Telfer TC: Selective pressure of antibiotic pollution on bacteria of importance to public health. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120, 1100–1106 (2012). doi:10.1289/ehp.1104650
- Michael I, Rizzo L, McArdell CS, Manaia CM, Merlin C, Schwartz T, Dagot C, Fatta-Kassinos D: Urban wastewater treatment plants as hotspots for the release of antibiotics in the environment: a review. Water Research, 47, 957–995 (2013). doi:10.1016/j.watres.2012.11.027
- Larsson DGJ, de Pedro C, Paxeus N: Effluent from drug manufactures contains extremely high levels of pharmaceuticals. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 148, 751–755 (2007). doi:10.1016/j.jhazmat.2007.07.008
- Fick J, Söderström H, Lindberg RH, Phan C, Tysklind M, Larsson DGJ: Contamination of surface, ground, and drinking water from pharmaceutical production. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 28, 2522–2527 (2009). doi:10.1897/09-073.1
- Larsson DGJ: Pollution from drug manufacturing: review and perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society London, Series B Biological Sciences, 369 (2014). doi:10.1098/rstb.2013.0571
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Boulund F, Fick J, Kristiansson E, Larsson DGJ: Shotgun metagenomics reveals a wide array of antibiotic resistance genes and mobile elements in a polluted lake in India. Frontiers in Microbiology, Volume 5, Issue 648 (2014). doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2014.00648 [Paper link]
- Kristiansson E, Fick J, Janzon A, Grabic R, Rutgersson C, Weijdegård B, Söderström H, Larsson DGJ: Pyrosequencing of antibiotic-contaminated river sediments reveals high levels of resistance and gene transfer elements. PLoS ONE, Volume 6, e17038 (2011). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017038.
- Marathe NP, Regina VR, Walujkar SA, Charan SS, Moore ERB, Larsson DGJ, Shouche YS: A Treatment Plant Receiving Waste Water from Multiple Bulk Drug Manufacturers Is a Reservoir for Highly Multi-Drug Resistant Integron-Bearing Bacteria. PLoS ONE, Volume 8, e77310 (2013). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0077310
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Larsson DGJ: Antibiotic resistance genes in the environment: prioritizing risks. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 13, 369 (2015). doi: 10.1038/nrmicro3399-c1 [Paper link]
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Huss M, Kjellqvist S, Kristiansson E, Palmgren H, Larsson DGJ, Johansson A: The human gut microbiome as a transporter of antibiotic resistance genes between continents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 59, 10, 6551-6560 (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15 [Paper link]
I’m going to do something unusual and ask you to sign a petition targeted at European Union ministers to support new EU laws to drastically cut the use of antibiotics
as growth promoters. The problem is that if ministers don’t feel the public pressure to act, the laws may be delayed or not be implemented. Examples from Denmark, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands show that it is possible to produce meat with little or no antibiotics, but since bacteria can travel across borders (1), we need to bring the rest of the world onboard, and the EU is good first step. Therefore I ask you to sign the Avaaz petition here.
- Bengtsson-Palme J, Angelin M, Huss M, Kjellqvist S, Kristiansson E, Palmgren H, Larsson DGJ, Johansson A: The human gut microbiome as a transporter of antibiotic resistance genes between continents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, 59, 10, 6551-6560 (2015). doi: 10.1128/AAC.00933-15 [Paper link]
In an interesting development, Nature Publishing Group has launched a new initiative: Scientific Data – a online-only open access journal that publishes data sets without the demand of testing scientific hypotheses in connection to the data. That is, the data itself is seen as the valuable product, not any findings that might result from it. There is an immediate upside of this; large scientific data sets might be accessible to the research community in a way that enables proper credit for the sample collection effort. Since there is no demand for a full analysis of the data, the data itself might quicker be of use to others, without worrying that someone else might steal the bang of the data per se. I also see a possible downside, though. It would be easy to hold on to the data until you have analyzed it yourself, and then release it separately just about when you submit the paper on the analysis, generating extra papers and citation counts. I don’t know if this is necessarily bad, but it seems it could contribute to “publishing unit dilution”. Nevertheless, I believe that this is overall a good initiative, although how well it actually works will be up to us – the scientific community. Some info copied from the journal website:
Scientific Data’s main article-type is the Data Descriptor: peer-reviewed, scientific publications that provide an in-depth look at research datasets. Data Descriptors are a combination of traditional scientific publication content and structured information curated in-house, and are designed to maximize reuse and enable searching, linking and data mining. (…) Scientific Data aims to address the increasing need to make research data more available, citable, discoverable, interpretable, reusable and reproducible. We understand that wider data-sharing requires credit mechanisms that reward scientists for releasing their data, and peer evaluation mechanisms that account for data quality and ensure alignment with community standards.
I read an interesting note today in Nature regarding the willingness to be review papers. The author of the note (Dan Graur) claims that scientists that publish many papers contribute less to peer review, and proposes a system in which “journals should ask senior authors to provide evidence of their contribution to peer review as a condition for considering their manuscripts.” I think that this is a very interesting thought, however I see other problems coming with it. Let us for example assume that a senior author is neglecting peer review not to be evil, but simply due to an already monumental workload. If we force peer review on such a person, what kind of reviews do we expect to get back? Will this person be able to fulfill a proper, high-quality, peer review assignment? I doubt it.
On the other hand, I don’t have a good alternative either. If no one wants to do the peer reviewing, that system will inevitably break down. However, I think that there would be better to encourage peer review with positive bonuses, rather than pressure – maybe faster handling times, and higher priority, of papers with authors who have done their share of peer reviewing the last two years? Maybe cheaper publishing costs? In any case, I welcome that the subject is brought up for debate, since it is immensely important for the way we perform science today. Thanks Dan!
On a side note, I just joined Research Gate (my profile). I’ve noted that it generates kind of the same kind of belonging-to-a-group feeling that registering on Facebook did way back, when co-author after co-author starts following you. Still, I haven’t figured out exactly what to use it for yet; it certainly seem more useful than academia.edu, with abilities to ask questions etc., but is anyone of you really using ResearchGate for this? Or is it rather just another showcasing window for researchers (much like my Publications page)? Please feel free do add your opinions as comments to this post!
I know that this is not supposed to be a political page, but writing this up, I realized that there is no way I can keep my political views entirely out of this post. So just a quick warning, the following text contains political opinions and is a reflection of my views and believes rather than well supported facts.
So, Swedish minister for education Jan Björklund has announced the government’s plan to spend 3 billion SEK (~350 million EUR, ~450 million USD) on “elite” researchers over the next ten years. One main reason to do so is to strengthen Swedish research in competition with American universities, and to be able to recruit top researchers from other countries to Sweden. While I welcome the prospect of more money to research, I have to say I am very skeptical about the nature of how this money is distributed. First of all, giving more money to the researchers that have already succeeded (I guess this is how you would define elite researchers – if someone has a better idea, please tell both me and Jan Björklund), is not going to generate more innovative research – just more of the same (or similar) things to what these researchers already do. If the government is serious about that Swedish research has a lower-than-expected output (which is a questionable statement in itself), the best way of increasing that output would be to give more researchers the opportunity to put their ideas into action. Second, a huge problem for research in Sweden is that a lot of the scientists’ time is spent on doing other stuff – writing grant applications, administering courses, filling in forms etc. Therefore, one way of improving research would be to put more money into funding at the university administration level, so that researchers actually have time to do what they are supposed to do. I will now provide my own four-point program for how I think that Sweden should move forward to improve the output of science.
1. Researchers need more time
My first point is that researchers need more time to do what they are supposed to do – science. This means that they cannot be expected to apply for money from six different research foundations every year, just to receive a very small amount of money that will keep them from getting thrown out for another 8 months. The short-term contracts that are currently the norm in Sweden create a system where way too much time is spent on writing grant applications – the majority of which will not succeed. In addition, researchers are often expected to be their own secretary, as well as organizing courses (not only lecturing). To solve this we need:
- Longer contracts for scientists. A grant should be large enough to secure five years of salary, plus equipment costs. This allows for some time to actually get the science done, not just the time to write the next application.
- Grants that come with a guaranteed five-year extension of grants to projects that have fulfilled their goals in the first five years. This further secures longevity of researchers and their projects. Also, this allows for universities to actually employ scientists instead of the current system which is all about trying to work around the employment rules.
- More money to university administration. It is simple more cost efficient to have a secretary handling non-science related stuff in the department or group, as well as economic people handling the economy. The current system expects every researcher to be a jack of all trades – which efficiently reduces one to a master of none. More money to administration means more time spent on research.
2. Broad funding creates a foundation for success
Another problem is that if only a few projects are funded repeatedly, the success of Swedish research is very much bound to the success of these projects. While large-scale and high-cost projects are definitely needed, there is also a need to invest in a variety of projects. Many applied ideas have originated from very non-applied research, and the applied research need fundamental research to be done to be able to move forward. However, in the shortsighted governmental view of science, the output has to be almost immediate, which means that applied projects are much more likely to be funded. Thus, projects that could do fundamental discoveries, but are more complicated and take longer time will be down-prioritized by both researchers and universities. To further make situation worse, Björklund et al. have promised more money to universities that cut out non-productive research, with almost guarantees that any projects with a ten-year timeframe will not even be started.
If we are serious about making Swedish research successful, we need to do exactly the opposite. Fund a lot of different projects, both applied and fundamental, regardless of their short-term value. Because the ideas that are most likely to produce short-term results are probably also the ones that are the least innovative in the long-term. Consequently, we need to:
- Spend research funding on a variety of projects, both of fundamental and applied nature.
- Secure funding for “crazy” projects that span long periods of time, at least five to ten years.
3. If we don’t dare to fail, we will not have a chance to win
Finally, research funding must become better at taking risks. If we only bet our money on the most successful researchers, there is absolutely no chance for young scientists to get funded, unless of course they have been picked up by one of the right supervisors. This means that the same ideas get disseminated through the system over and over again, at the expense of more innovative ideas that could pop up in groups with less money to realize them. If these untested ideas in smaller groups get funded, some of them might undoubtedly fail to produce research of high societal value. But some of them will likely develop entirely new ideas, which in the long term might be much more fruitful than throwing money on the same groups over and over again. Suggestions:
- Spend research funding broadly and with an active risk-gain management strategy.
- Allow for fundamental research to investigate completely new concepts – even if they are previously untested, and regardless (or less dependent on) previous research output.
- Invest in infrastructure for innovative research – and do so fast. For example, the money spent on the sequencing facilities at Sci Life Lab in Stockholm is an excellent example of an infrastructure investment that gains a lot of researchers at different universities access to high-throughput sequencing, without each university having to invest in expensive sequencing platforms themselves. More such centers would both spur collaboration and allow for faster adoption of new technologies.
4. Competing with what we are best at
A mistake that is often done when trying to compete with those that are best in the class is to try to compete by doing the same things as the best players do. This makes it extremely hard to win a game against exactly those players, as they are likely more experienced, have more resources, and already has the attention to get the resources we compete for. Instead, one could try to play the Wayne Gretzky trick: to try to skate where the puck is heading, instead of where it is today. Another approach would be to invent a new arena for the puck to land in, where you have better control over the settings than your competitors (slightly similar to what Apple did when the iPod was released, and Microsoft couldn’t use Windows to leverage their mp3-player Zune).
For Sweden, this would mean that we should not throw some bucks at the best players at our universities and hope that they will be happy with this (comparably small) amount of money. Instead, we should give them circumstances to work under that are much better or appealing from other standpoints. This could be better job security, longer contracts, less administrative work, securer grants, more freedom to decide over ones time, and larger possibilities to combine work and family. Simply creating a better, securer and nicer environment to work in. However, Björklund’s suggestions go the very opposite way: researchers should compete to be part of the elite community, and if your not in that group, you’d get thrown out. Therefore, I suggest (with the risk of repeating myself) that we should compete by:
- Offering longer contracts and grants for scientists.
- Giving scientists opportunities to combine work and family life.
- Embracing all kinds of science, both fundamental and applied, both short-term and long-term.
- Allowing researchers to take risks, even if they fail.
- Giving universities enough funding to let scientists do the science and administrative personal do the administration.
- Funding large-scale collaborative infrastructure investments.
- Thinking of how to create an environment that is appealing for scientists, not only from an economic perspective.
A note on other important aspects of funding
Finally, I have now been focusing a lot on width as opposed to directed funding to an elite research squad. It is, however, apparent that we also need to allocate funding to bring in more women to the top positions in the academy. Likely, a system which favors elite groups will also favor male researchers, judging from how the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research picks their bets for the future. Also, it is important that young researchers without strong track records gets funded, otherwise a lot of new and interesting ideas risk to be lost.
In the fourth point of my proposal, I suggest that Sweden should compete at what Sweden is good at, that is to view researchers as human beings, which are most likely to succeed in an environment where they can develop their ideas in a free and secure way. For me, it is surprising that a minister of education representing a liberal party wants to excess such control over what is good and bad research. Putting up a working social security system around science seems much more logical than throwing money at those who already have. Apparently I have forgotten that our current government is not interested in having a working social security system – their interest seem to lie in deconstructing the very same structures.
In December, Alex Bateman, whose opinions on open science I support and have touched upon earlier, wrote a short correspondence letter to Nature  in which he again repeated the points of his talk at FEBS last summer. He concludes by the paragraph:
Many in the scientific community will admit to using Wikipedia occasionally, yet few have contributed content. For society’s sake, scientists must overcome their reluctance to embrace this resource.
I agree with this statement. However, as I also touched upon earlier, but like to repeat again – bold statements doesn’t make dreams come true – action does. Rfam, and the collaboration with RNA Biology and Wikipedia is a great example of such actions. So what other actions may be necessary to get researchers to contribute to the Wikipedian wisdom?
First of all, I do not think that the main obstacle to get researchers to edit Wikipedia articles is reluctance to doing so because Wikipedia is “inconsistent with traditional academic scholarship”, though that might be a partial explanation. What I think is the major problem is the time-reward tradeoff. Given the focus on publishing peer-reviewed articles, the race for higher impact factor, and the general tendency of measuring science by statistical measures, it should be no surprise that Wikipedia editing is far down on most scientists to-do lists, so also on mine. The reward of editing a Wikipedia article is a good feeling in your stomach that you have benefitted society. Good stomach feelings will, however, feed my children just as little as freedom of speech. Still, both Wikipedia editing and freedom of speech are extremely important, especially as a scientist.
Thus, there is a great need of a system that:
- Provides a reward or acknowledgement for Wikipedia editing.
- Makes Wikipedia editing economically sustainable.
- Encourages publishing of Wikipedia articles, or contributions to existing ones as part of the scientific publishing process.
Such a system could include a “contribution factor” similar to the impact factor, in which contribution of Wikipedia and other open access forums was weighted, with or without a usefulness measure. Such a usefulness measure could easily be determined by links from other Wikipedia articles, or similar. I realise that there would be severe drawbacks of such a system, similar to those of the impact factor system. I am not a huge fan of impact factors (read e.g. Per Seglen’s 1997 BMJ article  for some reasons why), but I do not see that system changing any time soon, and thus some kind of contribution factor could provide an additional statistical measure for evaluators to consider when examining scientists’ work.
While a contribution factor would be an incitement for researchers to contribute to the common knowledge, it will still not provide an economic value to do so. This could easily be changed by allowing, and maybe even requiring, scientists to contribute to Wikipedia and other public fora of scientific information as part of their science outreach duties. In fact, this public outreach duty (“tredje uppgiften” in Swedish) is governed in Swedish law. In 2009, the universities in Sweden have been assigned to “collaborate with the society and inform about their operations, and act such that scientific results produced at the university benefits society” (my translation). It seems rational that Wikipedia editing would be part of that duty, as that is the place were many (most?) people find information online today. Consequently, it is only up to the universities to demand 30 minutes of Wikipedia editing per week/month from their employees. Note here that I am referring to paid editing.
Another way of increasing the economic appeal of writing Wikipedia articles would be to encourage funding agencies and foundations to demand Wikipedia articles or similar as part of project reports. This would require researchers to make their findings public in order to get further funding, a move that would greatly increase the importance of increasing the common wisdom treasure. However, I suspect that many funding agencies, as well as researchers would be reluctant to such a solution.
Lastly, as shown by the Rfam/RNA Biology/Wikipedia relationship, scientific publishing itself could be tied to Wikipedia editing. This process could be started by e.g. open access journals such as PLoS ONE, either by demanding short Wikipedia notes to get an article published, or by simply provide prioritised publishing of articles which also have an accompanying Wiki-article. As mentioned previously, these short Wikipedia notes would also go through a peer-review process along with the full article. By tying this to the contribution factor, further incitements could be provided to get scientific progress in the hands of the general public.
Now, all these ideas put a huge burden on already hard-working scientists. I realise that they cannot all be introduced simultaneously. Opening up publishing requires time and thought, and should be done in small steps. But doing so is in the interest of scientists, the general public and the funders, as well as politicians. Because in the long run it will be hard to argue that society should pay for science when scientists are reluctant to even provide the public with an understandable version of the results. Instead of digging such a hole for ourselves, we should adapt the reward, evaluation, funding and publishing systems in a way that they benefit both researchers and the society we often say we serve.
- Bateman and Logan. Time to underpin Wikipedia wisdom. Nature (2010) vol. 468 (7325) pp. 765
- Seglen. Why the impact factor of journals should not be used for evaluating research. BMJ (1997) vol. 314 (7079) pp. 498-502
The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) has made public their grants to the research leaders of the future (link in Swedish), aiming to help and promote young researchers with a lot of potential and ambition to build their own research groups within their fields. 18 persons got 10 million SEK each (roughly 1.5 million USD), and also a leadership education. However, SSF obviously believes that men are superior in building and leading research groups, as 14 of the researchers were men (that’s 78%).
It is often argued that the reason that men get more and larger grants than women  is that they are more abundant in academia and that the over-representation of men will solve itself given sufficient time. This makes the SSF decisions particularly saddening. These 18 researchers represent the future of Swedish research, and SSF thinks that the research of the future is better of being led by… men. Alarmingly, the foundation’s statements on gender equality (in Swedish) says that (my translation):
The foundation for strategic research views gender equality as something self-evident, that should permeate not only the operations of the foundation, but also all activities that the foundation supports. Thus, the foundation strives towards that all treatment should be gender neutral, and that the under-represented gender should be given priority when other merits are similar. In an equal nation, research resources of men and women should always be taken advantage of, within all areas.
Still, only 20% of the chosen researchers are women. You may think this is a one-time-only event, but no, no, no, it’s much worse than this. In 2005, six of 18 researchers chosen were women (33%), in 2002 six out of 23 (26%), and 2008 six of 20 (30%). It seems that the SSF regards equality to mean 70% men, 30% women. That’s pretty bad for a foundation says it “views gender equality as something self-evident, that should permeate not only the operations of the foundation, but only all activities that the foundation supports.” Obviously, the words on equality are just words, and women still have a long way to go before treated equally by foundations supporting research.
In the long run, this inequality only cements the established norm with men on the top of the research departments. Wennerås and Wold wrote in 2000 that “junior scientists’ frustration at the pace of their scientific productivity is normal at the beginning of their careers, when they do most of the benchwork by themselves. But female scientists tend to remain at this level their entire working lives” . Maybe it would be a good idea for the directors of the SSF to read this, and think about what their actions actually mean for the future of strategic research, and contemplate why women are leaving academia to a much larger extent than men . Because research funders has a huge responsibility for the future of the scientific community.
- Wennerås and Wold. Nepotism and sexism in peer-review. Nature (1997) vol. 387 (6631) pp. 341-3
- Wennerås and Wold. A chair of one’s own. Nature (2000) vol. 408 (6813) pp. 647
- Handelsman et al. Careers in science. More women in science. Science (2005) vol. 309 (5738) pp. 1190-1