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Helene Hellmark Knutsson is no longer a government minister, Minister for Higher Education and Research


Speech at Science and Technology forum 2015


International Conference Center, Kyoto, Japan, October 4, 2015

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Dear fellow panellists, Prof. Wiesel, ladies and gentlemen

Sweden prides itself on being a knowledge society. Our global competitiveness depends on our ability to create, develop and make practical use of new scientific discoveries. In short: our capacity to innovate. We invest in knowledge and competence.

But innovation is not just about competitiveness and economic growth. As we consider the big challenges facing our societies today – climate change, inclusive societies, energy, health and ageing, just to mention a few – innovation is at the heart of our ability to find solutions that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable.

In Sweden, universities constitute an essential first part of the innovation value chain. But they need to have closer links to business and the public sector, in order to find practical applications for new scientific discoveries and to transfer knowledge and we also need to look more at students as central carriers of new ideas and knowledge.

And not every scientist should be forced into becoming an entrepreneur. There will always be scientists who come up with new ideas and produce excellent research, but for different reasons do not want to take their projects outside academia. That is why there needs to be ways in which their discoveries can be picked up by other actors in the innovation system.

About half the population in Sweden and the world is female. The Swedish labour market has a high participation of women, 77 %. This is the main reason why Swedish employment and labour force participation long have been among the highest in the EU. But we still see big differences between women and men when choosing higher education and their possibilities to make a career in research and science.

In Sweden there are more women taking part in higher education than men and the study choices of students are seemingly gender-based. We need to take a long, hard look at our societies and ask ourselves: who gets to appear as scientific experts on TV and in newspapers? What is the gender portrayed for different professions that influences the choice of education? Who gets portrayed as smart and innovative in popular culture? Preconceptions about gender have deep roots and are hard to change. Here, academia has a vital role to play.

Since 1999 the number of Swedish female professors has increased from 12 to 25 %. This is good, but not good enough – especially as the increase has slowed down in the recent years. This means that research and education lose important competence due to fixed ideas and prejudice. Sweden has the world’s first Feminist Government. This affects all policy fields, including research and higher education. I believe that gender equality is essential for Sweden to become a truly prominent research nation. But it is also a question of democratic rights: that each and every citizen is given the opportunity to follow his or her dreams. That no one is forced do away with their innermost ambitions.

Gender equality needs to improve across the board. That is why I have appointed an Expert group to give advice on gender policy for higher education and research. We are also starting to Gender Integrate all our universities and to set new, ambitious, recruitment goals for female professors.

Research grants must also be awarded in an equal way. Swedish research councils have equal success rates for men and for women. But the outcome of applications to the European Research Council gave us cause for concern. Sweden came out at the lower end with only 10 % of successful applicants being female. An important goal for us will be to make research funding gender equal.

Sweden is often described as one of the most equal countries in the world. Higher education is a democratic right, available free of charge to every citizen. And still participation in higher education remains highly determined by your socio-economic background. If your parents have some sort of higher education, you are twice as likely to take part in higher education yourself, compared to those with parents who only finished secondary school. This is a huge flaw in our system.

In a modern country like Sweden, socio-economic background, gender, or disability cannot be allowed to determine a person’s chances of getting a degree. Equal access to education is a democratic right. This is why I have put widening access and widening participation in higher education and research front and centre of my agenda as a minister. I have told our government agencies to step up their work on these issues, to identify successful examples and encourage the spreading of best practice among universities.

I look forward to your questions, and this opportunity to have a constructive discussion about the role of universities in creating more democratic, sustainable, and equitable societies in the future.

Thank you!