Knowledge for a sustainable transformation

Below you can read our input to the Swedish government’s upcoming research bill. In our recommendations we have identified key issues within our field that the Government need to address in order to reach their goal for Sweden to be one of the world’s leading knowledge nations, and for research and innovation to contribute, as far as possible, to the sustainable transformation of our society.

Omslag till Formas inspel

The world is changing. The need for a global sustainable transformation is more urgent than ever. In September 2015 the UN adopted Agenda 2030, which consists of 17 sustainable development goals and 169 targets for achieving an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable world by 2030. Knowledge creation, innovation and transformation are its central tenets, and we have no time to lose if we are to stand a chance of reaching these goals.

We must collaborate globally, working in partnership. In order for stakeholders with different backgrounds to interact in collaborative partnerships that will contribute to achieving a sustainable world, we need to embrace holistic and co-creative approaches. Arenas for collaboration, unifying programmes and a focus on solutions will therefore gain in importance.

The world needs courageous political decisions. Science can show the way. Research has given us knowledge of the major challenges of our time, but has also pointed the way forward towards new solutions. But insights and knowledge do not automatically lead to change. The mistrust of science and fake news complicate and hinder democratic public discourse. The counteracting forces are participation, transparency and high-quality research.

We want to highlight the need for thematic programmes in research and innovation, investments in researcher-initiated topics, and the capacity for flexible initiatives that can address the rapid changes in society. We also wish to emphasize the importance of broad remits that span all disciplines and include research, innovation, systematic reviews and communication. Together, we can achieve a sustainable transformation.

This is the summary of Formas’ input to the research bill. When the full version is available in English, it will be published here.

Formas proposes the following

  • Sweden should make further substantial investments in research and innovation for a sustainable transformation
  • Formas should receive further research appropriations during the 2021–2024 period to enable:
    • A new national research programme for oceans and water
    • Targeted efforts to strengthen the areas of climate, food, sustainable spatial planning and biodiversity
    • Improved opportunities to conduct researcher-initiated research
    • More systematic reviews that can guide decision-making for different stakeholders
    • Flexible initiatives in research and innovation when rapid societal changes require them
    • Extensive international collaboration for achieving sustainable development globally, nationally and locally
    • A modern form of governance that better reflects Formas’ broad remit – from research and innovation to communication and systematic reviews.

Research and innovation systems for sustainability

Autonomy, integrity and quality are the pillars of research and innovation. This must be reflected in the Swedish research and innovation system. Universities and colleges, research institutes and businesses all need an enabling research and innovation system and highly skilled employees to deliver high-quality research and innovation.

Sweden has a good research system, but there is potential for improvement. This applies to universities and colleges as well as research funders. Sweden is a strong innovation country, with diverse stakeholders in the business sector. However, certain sectors need to be developed and reinforced. Formas therefore intends to deepen its dialogue with higher education institutions, research funders, businesses and other relevant stakeholders in order to identify common actions we can take to increase research quality, strengthen innovation and improve skills.

The research system is complex. The quality of research depends on excellent researchers. And the conditions for these researchers partly depends on the national and local cultures within higher education institutions and businesses. To enable high-quality scientific research, Sweden must attract the best researchers. Formas therefore proposes an evaluation of the career-structures at the universities and colleges with a focus on strategic recruitment, mobility, gender equality and research quality to ensure transparent and stable career-development paths and systems.  

The roles of universities, colleges and research funders in relation to funding of indirect costs must also be clarified. Formas therefore proposes an inquiry into how indirect costs are funded in order to develop a new model that is transparent and equitable and provides more incentives for streamlining.

Towards common goals – research and innovation for a sustainable transformation

To advance a sustainable transformation, Sweden must leverage its state research and innovation resources. Formas considers that the national research programmes and strategic innovation programmes fulfil their objectives and complement each other with regard to investments in key strategic areas. These programmes have provided opportunities for research councils and other relevant agencies to co-fund research and innovation that can meet major societal challenges. Many different stakeholders in society are currently involved in the programmes and drive them forward. 

As Formas is responsible for several of the national research programmes, synergies are created among them. Climate, food and sustainable spatial planning are major thematic challenges that demand resource mobilisation for achieving transformative shifts. We need to take action now, using existing knowledge while investing in new research and innovation beyond today’s challenges and time horizons in Agenda 2030. Therefore, the three ongoing national research programmes, on climate, food and sustainable spatial planning, must be bolstered with additional resources and long-term funding safeguarded.

A new national research programme for oceans and water

Water is a vital yet seriously threatened resource. We therefore propose a national research programme for oceans and water. All types of water – groundwater, freshwater and seawater – are interlinked and are impacted by the terrestrial environment. Societal challenges in the water sector are cross-cutting and have major implications for the economy, civil protection, our health, where we can live, what we eat and how we can provide for ourselves.

Across the globe, climate change, environmental degradation and human activities on and below the water’s surface threaten to impact water quality and access to safe and secure water resources. This is affecting the drinking water supply, agriculture, energy production, forestry, coastal communities, natural habitats and biodiversity. These threats also affect Sweden.

The in-depth evaluation of the environmental objectives in 2019 revealed that Sweden urgently needs measures to improve the conditions for securing clean water and functioning ecosystems. The main threats include eutrophication, environmental pollutants, adverse effects due to physical disturbance, inadequate protection of drinking water resources, and unsustainable intensive fishing practices. The Baltic Sea is one of the world’s most polluted seas, due to leaching of contaminants into waterways. Furthermore, three quarters of the most important marine fishing areas are today estimated to be either overexploited or fully exploited.

A new national research programme would stimulate strategic long-term efforts to resolve these complex ocean and water issues. There are major advantages to complementing Formas’ three existing national research programmes with a fourth, such as streamlining coordination and strengthening the ability to produce high-quality multidisciplinary research and innovation towards a sustainable transformation. This programme would also enable close collaboration between researchers and end users. The programme has the potential to shorten the time lag between research and practical application, resulting in significant environmental and socio-economic gains.

Strategic innovation programmes

In 2012, strategic innovation programmes, SIPs, were introduced in order to stimulate the creation of sustainable solutions to global challenges and to boost Swedish competitiveness. The Swedish Energy Agency, Formas and Vinnova are currently funding 17 strategic programmes in which private companies, the public sector, higher education institutions and research institutes are jointly developing the sustainable solutions, products and services of the future. 

The SIPs are well-established and deliver results in their prioritised areas. Formas and the other government agencies, are coordinated and engaging in dialogue with current programmes and with innovation system stakeholders, with a view to developing the next generation of SIPs. Our shared purpose is to further increase the capacity for renewal and to boost Sweden’s competitiveness. Provided that the programme budget is maintained, SIP 2.0 can launch in 2022.

Areas for targeted initiatives

In addition to the areas covered by the national research programmes and the innovation programmes, new knowledge and new solutions are urgently needed within several other areas. One is biodiversity, where new funding and cross- sectoral efforts are needed to restore biodiversity, reversing the trend in increasing number of endangered species. Another is the sustainable use of resources, where forest and production issues have long been in focus. Within forestry, Formas sees an opportunity to develop a comprehensive knowledge base that can serve as decision-making input for the two equally important forest policy objectives: production and the environment. There is also an increasing need for research and innovation on broader consumption issues and behaviours. A third area concerns risk and preparedness. Here, Formas has significant potential to contribute analyses and decision-support material based on previous investments in research on food supply, environmental pollutants and extreme weather.

New knowledge for a changing world

New challenges lie beyond the Agenda 2030 deadline. A research bill spans four years. But not everything is predictable. Sometimes rapid interventions and agile processes are needed. Since Formas’ unrestricted funding is currently severely limited, we have little scope to take action in response to rapidly shifting societal needs. Yet a good example where Formas had this opportunity was the call “The impacts of extreme weather events on people, society and nature” following the 2018 summer drought.

Research that leads to breakthroughs and paradigm shifts usually takes place in smaller groups. Implementation and practical application often happens in colla-boration with many different stakeholders and end users. Therefore, it is important that Formas is able to fund projects that are researcher-initiated as well as projects that involve end-users and target different themes.

Formas’ call for proposals to fund researcher-initiated projects is currently our largest call. The call has a large applicant pool and attracts many applications of high scientific quality and great societal relevance. In 2018, an interview study was conducted with researchers who received funds in Formas’ open call. The study showed that, in principle, all researchers are in some form working towards realising real world impact of their results. This can be done through training, communication with relevant target groups, policy activities, or the commer-cialisation of products and processes. Many researchers argue that the lack of incentives, such as funding or career-development paths, represents one of the main obstacles to making greater efforts to achieve societal impact.

Expanding the potential for bolder ideas, scientific breakthroughs, promoting younger researchers and a greater contribution to ensuring a highly educated workforce requires increased investment in researcher-initiated research. There is also a need for unrestricted funding for preparedness and flexibility in the face of unpredictable events and new societal challenges in a rapidly changing world.

Knowledge for informed decision-making

Since 2018, Formas has had a remit to systematically compile and evaluate scientific research that addresses the Swedish environmental objectives. Sweden has a long way to go towards achieving the Agenda 2030 goals as well as our own environmental objectives. The issues we face clearly exceeds what Formas today has the resources to address. Therefore, we propose an increase in appropriations over the next four-year period to fulfil our remit on evidence- based environmental analyses.

People can find it difficult to accept knowledge that conflicts with their own beliefs. This phenomenon, which can lead to polarisation and mistrust in science, isn’t new. However, today it is being reinforced by social media that tends to confirm the positions of individuals and groups regardless of whether or not they are consistent with the facts. Emotions and values are exploited in disin-formation campaigns that can affect public opinion and democratic discourse. Counterforces can be found in collaboration and co-creation, which has the potential to create a better understanding of how science works and a trust in knowledge based on science. For such collaboration to exist, education and research must be independent and of the highest quality, academic autonomy and integrity must be safeguarded.

The sustainability challenges are global. This is why we all need well-functioning, robust mechanisms for providing independent scientific advice to national and international policy-makers. Swedish researchers who are in demand in such efforts can find it difficult to obtain funding – even though their work both raises the quality of Swedish research and strengthens our ability to use new knowledge at the national level. Formas intends to explore the possibility of supporting researchers in Sweden so that they can participate more extensively in international scientific bodies.

Stronger international collaboration

Research is inherently global. Complementing and strengthening Swedish research and innovation requires collaboration between the best researchers around the world. Agenda 2030 is universal – all countries need to support the transformation and develop further. Global development and sustainable development go hand in hand. Low-, middle- and high-income countries need to collaborate. Such collaborative partnerships offer great potential to find the solutions to society’s challenges. Formas sees an increased need to fund research that integrates different perspectives and involves researchers from different countries, including low- income and lower-middle income countries.

Partnership and shared responsibility are central tenets of Agenda 2030. Better integration of research with different funding sources, objectives or target groups would support this while stimulating the quality of research and increasing its relevance. Formas believes that the current system must be examined with the aim of strengthening Sweden as a player in a global research context that also includes low-income and lower-middle income countries.

European collaboration

Formas’ focus on research that promotes sustainable development and hence the Agenda 2030 goals is well-aligned with the perspectives from the current Horizon 2020 programme and the forthcoming Horizon Europe programme. Through active participation in many EU initiatives, Formas has helped Swedish stakeholders gain a strong position ahead of the Horizon Europe implementation. The national research programmes and strategic innovation programmes, provide a strong foundation which underpins Sweden’s future participation and potential success in the programme.

Sustainable development ranks high on the EU’s agenda. Formas’ expertise in areas like climate, environment, agriculture, forestry, food, bioeconomy, water and the built environment should be leveraged. This can be done by designating Formas as an expert authority and national focal point for the new framework programme.

Many of the forthcoming partnership programmes fall within the scope of Formas’ areas of responsibility. Strong Swedish participation will require increased co-funding. Such co-funding does not fit within Formas’ current budgetary framework. Historically, the economic returns have been positive for Sweden’s part in this area of the framework programme. With expanded funding, Formas would be able to increase Swedish researchers’ participation in these European collaborative partnerships. At the same time, it would create opportunities
for Swedish researchers to participate, through established networks, in larger European consortiums that can receive funding for large-scale projects within the framework programme.

Accessible, inclusive and responsible research

Openness and transparency are fundamental if research and innovation is to continue to deserve citizens’ trust. To maintain this trust, research must also be conducted in ethical ways that build trust and confidence. Formas therefore welcomes the new legislation on research misconduct, but would like to see the legislation given a broader scope. As a first step, it should include all publicly funded research.

Open access to research results helps to maintain and promote high-quality research. It allows government agencies, private companies and public-sector organisations to make use of the latest research results. Open access is a priority for the EU, indeed the Competitiveness Council has clearly stated its support for open-access science.

Formas has endorsed the Plan S initiative, which was launched in 2018 by an international consortium of research funders to promote open access to scientific publications. Plan S contains a number of principles, including requirements for immediate and open access to published results from research projects receiving public funds as of 1 January 2021. The European Commission has announced that corresponding requirements will be placed on projects that are allocated funding under Horizon Europe.

Formas believes that Plan S is an important tool for driving the transition to an open and accessible science system. To further support these open-access publishing efforts, we therefore propose that all research funders be tasked with regularly reporting their progress on achieving the government’s objective of immediate open access to published research.

To produce Swedish research of high quality, academic researchers must have a level playing field regardless of gender and perceive that a research career is achievable and desirable, even for those who do not fit the prevailing researcher norms. In general, Formas has a relatively uniform gender balance in its awarded grants. This distribution reflects the current reality in the scientific community and therefore varies from one research field to another. We work methodically on ways to encourage people of the underrepresented sex to apply for funding in our calls.

Digital research opportunities and challenges

New technology and new communication channels create new opportunities, expectations and conditions for a lively dialogue between many different parties and stakeholders. Digitalisation is not an end in itself – it is both a driving force for change and an enabler that can provide solutions for sustainable development. Formas intends to continue its targeted calls to strengthen the role of digitalisation within its areas of responsibility, with a special focus on agricultural sciences and the environment. Formas maintains that the existing large volume of public data could be used more efficiently in research related to the built environment, agriculture and the environment. We therefore request a government mandate and relevant resources to actively promote the use of data in research within Formas’ areas of responsibility.

Formas looks forward to actively contributing to the government’s collaborative programme with its investments in the digital structural transformation and climate transformation of the business sector. Formas believes that Swedish artificial intelligence research shows great promise in playing a key role. This especially applies to areas of application that support the transformation in sectors like agriculture, forestry, finance, energy and transport, as well as applications within spatial planning, climate monitoring and modelling.

Skills development

The government’s digitalisation strategy addresses the issue of digital skills linked to higher education. Formas believes that there is a need for a parallel process at universities and colleges that would raise the basic level of digitalisation knowledge in environmental science and agricultural science programmes. An important step is the continued promotion of the user perspective in combination with increased inclusion and collaboration with private companies, since active participation from the business community increases the likelihood of results being commercialised or otherwise bringing tangible benefits. More collaborative partnerships, also including small and medium-sized companies, can have positive effects in terms of access to digital expertise where academia may otherwise struggle to compete.

Research infrastructure for sustainable development

Research infrastructure comprises the tools and resources that enable high-quality research in various fields. The concept is broad and includes access to experts and services. Research infrastructure can be centralised, distributed or virtual, and both fixed as well as mobile. Formas maintains that high environmental standards should be set when creating, operating and using research infrastructure.

The research infrastructure that currently receives government funding primarily meets the needs of disciplines like physics, astronomy and medicine, while other fields – including a lot of research that can help to achieve all the sustainability goals – do not leverage the major facilities to the same degree. Instead, they generally have less access to relevant infrastructure. Formas therefore proposes that the Council for Research Infrastructure be tasked with investigating how research infrastructure can more clearly contribute to sustainable development and increased competitiveness.

From funder to active partner

On 1 January 2001, Formas, Forte, the Swedish Research Council and Vinnova were founded with the purpose to bring together key areas, promote cooperation and improve the dissemination of research results. In hindsight, we can say that this was a huge forward-looking change.

Formas’ remit is as relevant today as it was twenty years ago. Today’s challenges are even more complex and global than we could have imagined back then. They demand new approaches and shorter lead times between results and impact.

Today, many funders are looking for ways to shorten the lead time from research to innovation or other practical implementation. Around the world, many research funders are taking a more active role in providing network opportunities and putting their knowledge and networks at the disposal of academia, businesses and civil society.

A modern remit with a clear governance

Although collaborative projects are best positioned to create relevant research and shorten the lead times between research or innovation idea and scientific and practical impact, they are costly to operate from an administrative point of view. This is especially true if they are implemented in an international context. The proposals Formas is putting forth will therefore entail higher administrative costs and require the continued possibility of using research funding for certain project-related costs.

Formas’ terms of reference were established when the agency was founded. Although the government has broadened and altered our remit, our terms of reference have been adjusted without taking a holistic approach. Formas needs a modern, cohesive and forward-looking governance model. We believe that our terms of reference must be reviewed in order to clarify the breadth of our remit – research, innovation, systematic reviews and communication – for sustainable transformation. In the context of such a review, an evaluation should be made of whether the current governance, with several decision-making bodies, is effective or whether a board would be more functional.

Enhanced resources for new knowledge and solutions for a sustainable transformation

Accelerating the transformation needed for an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable development requires new knowledge and solutions. Formas therefore proposes substantial investments in research and innovation within its areas of responsibility based on the proposals outlined above.

The proposals include an increase in Formas’ appropriations through 2024. The increase is gradually, resulting in increased appropriations of SEK 745 million in 2024 compared to 2020 levels.

The numbers in the table are the increase in appropriations compared to 2020 levels. Formas considers this a first step in a progression that should continue over the next ten-year period.

Increase in appropriations compared to 2020 levels (in SEK millions)

Increase in appropriations compared to 2020 levels (in SEK millions)






Funding for researcher-initiated projects and unforeseen research needs





New national research programme for oceans and water





Increased funding for the national research programme for food





Increased funding for the national research programme on climate





Increased funding for the national research programme for sustainable spatial planning





Investment in biodiversity research





Strategic innovation programme 2.0





Increased funding for international collaboration





Increased funding for evidence-based environmental analysis










* In Formas’ two appropriation directions, funds are earmarked for strategic innovation activities in accordance with previous research bills. This amounts to a total of SEK 100 million by 2020. Formas’ work on developing the strategic innovation programmes assumes a continued funding level of SEK 100 million annually for that specific purpose during 2021–2024.

Updated:13 December 2019