Sweden’s researchers outraged at decision to axe development-research funding

Sweden’s researchers outraged at decision to axe development-research funding

The government has made cuts to development-research grants, citing the need to re-prioritize spending on aid.Credit: WDnet Creation/Shutterstock

International-development researchers in Sweden are in turmoil after the country’s government decided to cut all further public research funding for the field.

On 22 June, the government announced that the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskaprådet; VR), the country’s largest research funder, would no longer offer grants for development research — taking 180 million Swedish kronor (US$16.4 million) off the table with immediate effect.

More than 600 researchers have signed an open letter criticizing the move and calling for its reversal. “The Government’s decision wastes time and energy spent on preparing applications and undermines confidence in the research support system as a whole,” the letter says. “Sweden has been a leading player in development research and research assistance for over 50 years. This position is now seriously undermined.”

The decision to axe funding affects grant applications submitted by around 250 researchers in Sweden, together with dozens of international collaborators based mainly at universities in Africa or Asia.

In 2022, VR approved 60 applications for 2–4 year projects. “We anticipated a similar output from the 2023 call,” says Ingrid Öborn, an agroforestry researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, and chair of the VR’s Committee for Development Research from 2022 to 2024. “The aim of the discontinued grants, funded by VR since 2013 from the government’s development-aid budget, was to strengthen Swedish research of the highest quality with particular relevance to poverty alleviation and sustainable development in low-income countries.”

The move follows a budget reduction at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in January: a 54% cut from 960 million in 2022, to 440 million kronor.

Fears for the future

The open letter says that the government made the decision without consulting the scientific community, and that a sudden loss of grant funding will have particularly severe consequences for early-career researchers.

Aida Bargués-Tobella, an ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Umeå, who signed the letter, relies completely on external grants for her income. She had applied for a grant that would have covered 50% of her salary, up to 20% of the salaries of four international collaborators (at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda) and two PhD student stipends, plus fieldwork and travel costs. “It would have been a great opportunity for us to establish ourselves and to build on the collaboration we started three years ago,” says Bargués-Tobella. Now, she is worried about her future and that of the project.

“Due to this abrupt decision, I might seriously consider leaving Sweden after 9 years of research here,” says Cristiano Lanzano, a social anthropologist at the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala, whose work relies on research-council funding.

“There are many global aspects of development research that we now risk losing,” says Jonas Ewald, a social-studies researcher at Linnaeus University in Växjö, who also signed the letter. He adds that development research is important for addressing global challenges and contributing to better health care, economic development and climate-change mitigation.

A change in direction

The government has cited the need to control aid spending as a reason for the cuts. “With the war in Ukraine, we are in an entirely new situation,” says Johan Forssell, the minister for international development, cooperation and foreign trade. “We do not have unlimited resources. The allocation of aid always involves difficult trade-offs, and we are prioritising the urgent needs in Ukraine.”

“We fully understand that researchers are disappointed by the decision, as they have put time and effort into their applications. At the same time, we note that 98% of the Swedish Research Council’s other appropriations remain intact, from which researchers are welcome to apply for funding,” he adds.

Researchers have countered that the government is confusing humanitarian needs with development research.

The sudden loss of funding “will jeopardize the work done for decades to build up long-term research capacity in low-income countries”, says Hannah Akuffo, who retired from her position as a senior research adviser at Sida last year. “It takes time to build collaborations and research environments that work, both in Sweden and in the global south. Now that long-term endeavour is at risk of being destroyed.”

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