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Quality focus threatens Sweden’s equality dreams

Concern for Sweden’s much vaunted record on gender equality is rising in tandem with calls on the government to ramp up competition for block research grants in a bill due to be published next year.

In a statement published on 9 November, the government announced that it has asked the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education (Högskoleverket) to look into the data available for assessing the gender distribution of block research funding.

The aim, according to Eva Marie-Byberg, press secretary to Jan Björklund, Sweden’s education minister, is to see if the gender distribution of block research funding is as skewed as it is for more competitive sources. “We already know that competitive funding tends to favour male researchers so we want to see if direct funding follows the same pattern,” she says.

The current funding formula for allocating university block grants in Sweden was implemented in the last research bill in 2008. It benefits highly cited research groups that attract a lot of competitive grants and external funding from industry, and is used to distribute 10 per cent of total direct research funding.

But there is wide support in Sweden for further increasing the component of this funding distributed according to competitive criteria. The heads of six of Sweden’s largest research funders recently asked the government to implement measures in next year’s research bill to ensure that more of its block funding ends up in the hands of fewer researchers.

It is unclear to what extent the government will adhere to these wishes, but if they do more of Sweden’s direct research funding could end up in the hands of men. “Gender equality and competition are in the air. All the signals strongly point to more block funding being concentrated. But I think increasing competition for block grants will result in a much higher concentration of men getting funding,” says Mats Benner, a research policy expert at Lund University.