Home Interviews The Swedish Research Council’s strong belief in Swedish life science

The Swedish Research Council’s strong belief in Swedish life science

Vetenskapsrådets nya generaldirektör om potentialen för svensk life science

The Swedish Research Council’s strong belief in Swedish life science

4 January, 2023

As Sweden’s largest government research funder, the Swedish Research Council is an important institution for Swedish drug development. Last September , Katarina Bjelke took over as the new Director General. In a conversation with BioStock, she tells us about the council’s work, Sweden’s potential as a research nation and what is required for research projects to be granted money.

The Swedish Research Council distributes almost 8 billion SEK annually to research and research infrastructure, which makes it Sweden’s largest state financier of research at Swedish universities, colleges, and institutions. The Council funds research from all fields of science by announcing open competitions for grants.

Katarina Bjelke, Director General at the Swedish Research Council

In September, the Council appointed a new Director General in the form of Katarina Bjelke, who brings to her new role a long experience from academia.

“I come from a long background in academia – this is a very important experience for me to bring into my new role. I have also worked with research policy issues and government administration for many years, which I also believe helps me in the work here,” says Bjelke.

Every year, the Swedish Research Council’s review groups consider approximately 6 000 research applications, and the research projects that are granted funding are examined very carefully.

“The researchers who are awarded grants are selected in national competition after solid expert reviews, which we believe is a guarantee that it will be those who meet the requirements best that receive support. The projects are assessed on the basis of innovation and originality, scientific quality, competence of the applicant and feasibility of the project,” says Bjelke.

Significant competition for grants

The approximately 6 000 applications received each year are reviewed by around 900 researchers, and the competition is fierce. According to Bjelke, approximately 17 per cent of the applications received each year are approved.

There are 13 national research programmes in Sweden established by the government. The Swedish Research Council is responsible for six of these, several of which are within the life science area. The programmes aim to coordinate research in different areas and bring together actors to together increase the conditions for success. One of the programmes focuses on antibiotic resistance and aims to preserve the possibility of effective treatment of bacterial infections in humans and animals.

“All research related to antibiotic resistance can be supported under this programme. For example, it can be about research on new antibiotics, the spread of infection or the reduction of healthcare-associated infections,” says Bjelke.

Another programme will strengthen knowledge about viruses and pandemics. During 2021 – 2024, 400 million SEK will be invested to build preparedness for future pandemics. The programme will generate new knowledge about viral diseases, the transfer from animals to humans, vaccines and treatments as well as knowledge about how equal health can be ensured in a pandemic.

Investment in research infrastructure

Another important leg is the funding of research infrastructure. Katarina Bjelke states that a third of the Swedish Research Council’s budget goes here.

“Researchers need advanced tools to carry out their research, whether it be databases, research facilities, biobanks or large-scale computational tools. The Swedish Research Council funds infrastructure inside and outside in Sweden to give Swedish research the best possible conditions.”

Funding for clinical studies

Together with Sweden’s regional councils, the Swedish Research Council also finances clinical treatment studies. A requirement for being granted money is that the study should lead to societal and patient benefits in the relatively near future.

“One wants the studies to lead to implementation in the near future. The studies are expected to be based on existing needs within health care. Presently, this is a very important area to develop and support as there are challenges in the clinical environment that put focus entirely on healthcare production, while research and education are pushed to the side.”

In 2021, the Swedish Research Council accounted for 11 per cent of revenue from R&D at higher education institutions and are the only ones in Sweden that have the task of supporting free basic research in all subject areas – an important assignment, says Katarina Bjelke.

“We have an important mission when it comes to identifying the best research and working to ensure that those who conduct high-quality research have the conditions to develop their ideas.”

Conditions for world class research

According to Bjelke, the conditions for conducting world-class research appear to be good in Sweden. For a long time, Sweden has been internationally prominent as a research nation with high R&D intensity and high impact on various indicators.

“We are above the world average and at the top among OECD countries. A high proportion of Sweden’s GDP goes towards research, and we have the highest proportion of researchers in relation to population size, which gives us good conditions. There are also a lot of scientific publications published in relation to population.”

But there is space for improvement.

“The area where we need to improve is research with high impact – when it comes to highly cited research, we are not in the top five.”

Potential in Swedish life science

Overall, Katarina Bjelke believes that Sweden has great potential when it comes to developing the medicine of the future.

“Life science is one of Sweden’s areas of strength, especially when it comes to clinical drug trials for small well-defined treatment groups, where Sweden can become a leader. But that requires investment in basic research and clinical studies.”

Katarina Bjelke says that the development in recent years has led to increased opportunities to understand disease development, which enables new tailor-made treatments. Precision medicine therefore seems to be an area where the conditions for Sweden to become a world leader are good.

The fact that Sweden has a long tradition of collaboration between academia, the clinic and private sector is also positive for the development of the medicines of the future.

“It is small companies that have been the basis for great development in Sweden. For the future, it is important to support collaborations and small-scale clinical trials. Our basic mission is to support both clinical trials and basic research, both are needed and lead to more forms of collaboration. The development of the medicine of the future is an important area where we have high hopes for Sweden, and we will do what we can to help the development.”

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