A rewarding journey

A rewarding journey

At the end of 2017, after eight years of service, Gunnel Gustafsson will be concluding her tenure as Director of NordForsk.

Gunnel Gustafsson is a very open person. Within the first minute of our conversation she has already shared the most important milestone in her life. The cadence of her speech is redolent of an origin in the marsh landscape of Västerbotten in Northern Sweden.

“That’s right,” she says, when we comment on her dialect.

“I was born in a place where no one lives anymore: Torrberg Norsjö in inland Västerbotten. When my father broke a leg and could no longer earn a living as a forestry worker he took the family to Hjoggböle, a thriving ‘metropolis’ of a few hundred inhabitants where we had both neighbours and electricity. It was not a big move in terms of distance, but it was the biggest change in my life. From there I moved to Umeå, and have since lived in several places around the world. I still have my professorship at Umeå University and I often think that the university is where I can always hang my hat,” she says.

Soon there will be a changing of the guard. After eight years as Director of NordForsk in Oslo her time is up. At NordForsk, the director and her staff of close to 20 have been allocating Nordic funding to research projects in areas as diverse as neutrons, gender equality, developments in the Arctic, the bioeconomy and health, to name a few. Always with the aim of generating Nordic added value, contributing to sustainable development and meeting global challenges. And all of it based on knowledge of the highest calibre.

Just what it is that generates Nordic added value varies from project to project.

“Say we receive five grant applications that are very comparable in terms of quality. Then those who are investing money in research can gauge what will be interesting from a Nordic perspective. It may be a question of which institutions will be participating as partners, or what the prospective benefits will be for future research activity or more directly for decision-makers or other users of the research.”

The value of Nordic research cooperation has been recognised in evaluations and confirmed by researchers and research groups. According to Rolf
Annerberg, Chair of the Management Board for the Nordic Top-level Research Initiative for climate, energy and the environment, the high degree of trust shared between Nordic countries and researchers, along with their tradition of working together, yields “results that other regions can only dream of.”

NordForsk was established in 2005 to promote effective research collaboration in the Nordic region. NordForsk receives an annual basic allocation of roughly NOK 120 million from the Nordic Council of Ministers.

“We are small,” Director Gustafsson stresses, “but our common pot financing with funding provided by the individual Nordic countries gives us a portfolio of research activities for approximately NOK 1.1 billion. However, this sum is a little deceptive. Because our research programmes often extend over four years or more and disburse funding annually, it is not as large as it seems.”

“Of course, the Swedish Research Council, the Academy of Finland and other such institutions have much more money at their disposal. NordForsk is a platform for Nordic cooperation between researchers who have already demonstrated their ability to deliver very high quality results. Research-funding bodies are demonstrating both enthusiasm about and willingness to further advance cooperation.
In recent years, the overall amount contributed by Nordic national funding agencies has been more than twice the size of the basic allocation from the Nordic Council of Ministers.”

“At NordForsk we always strive to promote research with an ‘edge’, that is, to support spearhead projects that have high aspirations and are innovative,” she adds.

Gunnel Gustafsson has worked with “big picture” questions, such as how researchers can gain access to data in other Nordic countries. “Just ten years ago it was practically impossible to send data on individuals between the Nordic countries. Researchers were forced to go sit at an institution in another country to get access to the information there,” she says.

She sees the value of the Nordic registers and biobanks as being especially important. These enable five countries to track their populations back many years. National ID numbers were first introduced in Sweden in 1947, with Denmark the last Nordic country to do so in 1968.

“If we could make the leap from registers for each individual Nordic country to analysing the entire Nordic region with its 26 million inhabitants, it would be much easier to identify factors that are linked to, for example, rare diseases.”

One example from her own place of origin is familial amyloid polyneuropathy, a genetic disease ultimately leading to liver failure. It occurs in 20 in a million inhabitants in Sweden overall, but 300 in a million in Västerbotten.

“It is important to distinguish between open access to data and access to research results. The latter is no longer much of a problem,” she says.

“But if we could merge the Nordic countries’ registers it would be possible, for example, to find out whether, and the degree to which, the policies of each of the countries matter. For instance, does living in northern or southern Scandinavia have a greater impact on people’s health and well-being than living in a specific country?”

“At present, researchers often consider country of residence to be the prime factor, the independent variable or the reason behind the differences,” Professor Gustafsson states.

In certain areas, the national statistics bureaus are already collaborating to dismantle national barriers to Nordic register cooperation.

“I hope this will be strengthened and expanded. The Nordic ‘goldmine’ of register data remains underinvestigated due to legal, ethical, organisational and technical obstacles to sharing these data across national borders. If we can achieve Nordic cooperation on registers we will be able to study all kinds of other questions,” she explains.

What do the major trends indicate? Is the idea of pursuing Nordic cooperation more widely still a popular one, or have the Nordic countries, too, been affected by the withdrawal of countries such as the UK and the US from international cooperation?

“I don’t foresee any problem for Nordic cooperation in research. In fact, I think that other countries are tending to look more to the Nordic countries and at what we have accomplished. More and more often my colleagues and I are asked, ‘How do you manage to achieve such good transnational cooperation in the Nordic region?’”

Gunnel Gustafsson

In a recently published book, Norden sett innifrån (“The Nordic countries seen from within”), Gunnel Gustafsson summarises how this cooperation has developed. The Top-level Research Initiative for climate, energy and the environment has played an important role.

“The Nordic countries have the ability to rapidly organise and implement an interdisciplinary, transnational research and innovation initiative that delivers new knowledge of top scientific quality,” she writes.

It is not just about getting countries to cooperate. That is the easy part. What is more difficult is to convince different fields of research and institutions to step away from their silo mentality,  here decisions and communication take place exclusively within their own sector.

What does the director believe Nordic research cooperation will involve in the coming years? She envisions that cooperation will increase and that the digital infrastructure for research will become more important. She points to the Nordic e-Infrastructure Collaboration (NeIC), which became part of NordForsk in 2012, and which up to that point had storing and analysing data from the CERN particle accelerator facility in Switzerland as its key task.

“NeIC activities have expanded to include other research groups beyond users of CERN data. One of the NeIC’s current focus areas is on protecting privacy and ensuring anonymity in registers under establishment, while at the same time providing more open access to the data. This involves technical solutions for the secure storage and exchange of vast amounts of data. Major advances have been made in this area, but there is still much to be done. Access to robust infrastructure is a must if research results are to maintain a high standard. The work carried out under the NeIC is extremely important.”

“Cross-border cooperation is also becoming an increasingly important component of the ability to produce the highest-quality knowledge and, thus, our ability to help to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals at a time when globalisation and digitisation reign. But knowledge must also be made available to users at all levels. We need to step up our efforts to establish effective dialogue between researchers, the business sector and decision-makers both in political and public administration circles.”

“NordForsk currently has an open call for proposals that targets collaboration between universities instead of research groups, and that is not limited to a particular field of research. It is a strategic initiative aimed at creating incentives for Nordic universities to cooperate. The universities themselves are required to give priority to, and provide their own funding for, the areas in which they are seeking NordForsk funding. The university cooperation is expected to be able to stand on its own after six years. A full 68 applications have been received and they are currently being evaluated by a panel of experts.”

Gunnel Gustafsson herself exemplifies the great changes that have taken place in the Nordic countries where the thirst for knowledge is only increasing.

When she defended her doctoral dissertation in 1972 it was at the relatively new university in Umeå. Before it was established, there were only four Swedish universities – in Uppsala, Lund, Gothenburg and Stockholm. Since that time a great number of Swedish and other Nordic universities and university colleges have been established, now totalling more than 170.

At the time Gunnel Gustafsson became a professor in political science in 1986 she was the first woman in Sweden to hold that title. “Since then, the proportion of women in top-level university positions has increased significantly both in Nordic countries and in the rest of the world, although not as quickly as I and many others would like,” she says. She stresses that she has had an interesting, enjoyable career, not least her years with NordForsk. “At NordForsk I’ve had the opportunity to work with something I truly believe in and am passionate about – Nordic research cooperation.”

But the Director of NordForsk has never had her career as her only focus. Västerbotten is known throughout the Nordic region for its authors, such as Sara Lidman and Torgny Lindgren. The tiny town of Hjoggböle where her family moved in her youth is called the city of authors, home to P.O. Engquist, brother and sister Kurt and Anita Salmonsson, and Hjalmar Westerlund.

“I got my interest in literature and art by osmosis from my mother as a child, and my interest in all kinds of culture brings me much pleasure. It inspires new lines of thinking and makes it possible to take amazing journeys through time and space. These experiences have also helped me in tough times by teaching me to distinguish between real problems and ‘the small stuff’, to put my own experiences into perspective – and even to laugh at my own self-centredness.”

Today, much of her free time is spent with her three children and their families, including five grandchildren. After eight years with NordForsk she hopes to spend more time exploring nature and enjoying her close friends and family. But she still hungers for more, saying: “It’s important to strike a balance between the ‘small details’ of life and the bigger questions. So I hope to have the opportunity to contribute to societal development in one way or another even after my sojourn at NordForsk has come to an end.”


Text: Björn Lindahl
Photo: Terje Heiestad

This article has previously been published in NordForsk Magazine 2017

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