The growing bureaucracy threatens free research at Sweden's universities and colleges. Conformism is spreading, most clearly in research ethics. It has become a straitjacket that stifles the classical debate on ideas, write four professors.

This is an opinion piece in Dagens Nyheter. The writer is responsible for opinions in the article.


Conducting good research requires commitment, freedom, desire and courage. It requires universities and colleges that stand up for freedom of expression, untimely studies and researchers who are willing to take risks. Good research means not being able to plan and predict everything, but following unexpected paths.

Unfortunately, much is done to prevent this. We live in a society of caution and risk minimisation and an increasingly chastened and conformist academia. Do and say nothing controversial! Stay well within the rules and regulations!

A plethora of values and zero tolerance for what someone might perceive as offensive contributes to research becoming something of a minefield if you don't choose adaptability and caution. All this is part of a growing bureaucracy that has to be paid for by research, as few university leaders are able to defend research against bureaucracy.

In increasingly regulation-marinated activities, a toolbox of more or less repressive measures is often available to those who see the exercise of authority and the pursuit of regulation as the overriding principle and the freedom and value of research as secondary. There are many examples of people getting into trouble.

At Linköping University, the researchers behind a report on BRÅ, which showed how the agency succumbs to political pressure, were subjected to serious administrative mistreatment in which all possible regulations were mobilised in the squarest possible way. It was only when a number of established academics and journalists began to react that the university retreated from the most extreme sanctions.

Regulatory-heavy institutions diminish desire and capacity, foster cautious and compliant researchers, and risk stifling research in key areas.

In research ethics, this attitude is increasingly apparent. Ethics has become a matter of regulatory compliance, formal review and risk minimisation. In the past, ethical issues were largely handled well by the research community, and without unnecessary formality. Now it is subject to an extensive formal regulatory regime.

In Lund, a researcherwas recentlyprosecuted for investigating a controversial topic in a study of register data. This despite the fact that no person participating in the study could be identified. The researcher now faces a fine or even imprisonment. There is a lack of good judgement and a lack of proportionality in a system characterised by a narrow legal approach.

Clearly, ethics are important. Experimentation on human beings is often deeply unethical, as a high-profile case at Karolinska illustrates. Animal experiments should also be conducted in a highly restrictive manner. But ethics should not be least about using large resources to produce good and valuable research. It is, after all, a matter of taxpayers' money and social benefit. The situation is exacerbated when research opportunities are curtailed and researchers are disciplined. Many of the most important studies in the social and behavioural sciences would probably not have been possible today.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency for ethical review to take on the character of a straitjacket for anyone doing anything controversial. The risk is that it is more about protecting a university management from possible criticism than about ethics in a more substantive sense. It is also difficult to determine where the line is between ethics and politics. When does an ethics review become in effect a "policy review"? One might ask who reviews the consequences of this ethics review - and how should the ethics review itself be reviewed?

Ethics review easily becomes a tool for the exercise of power. Whoever sits there controls not only what research is to be carried out but also the fate of individual researchers. Committees seem happy to report and - if possible - condemn, perhaps to legitimise their raison d'être, to have something to do and to increase their sense of importance. No one wants to clash with the guardian of ethical review.

This reveals various possibilities for irrelevant considerations and backslapping, with the ethical review itself ending up in an ethical grey area. Moreover, it has become increasingly common for university leaders to abdicate downwards. When a never-so-prominent researcher complains about the way he or she has been treated by his or her immediate supervisor, senior managers often refuse to address the situation independently. Without a rector, they abdicate to the dean, who in turn abdicates to the head of department, who in turn abdicates to the researcher's immediate boss. It therefore becomes almost impossible for the researcher in question to get any redress, however badly he or she may have been treated.

Moreover, there is an obvious risk that the ethics review will unethically target colleagues and competitors and paralyse their research for years to come, to the benefit of the complainant even though the complainant may eventually be completely exonerated. In such a case, how will redress be provided to the researcher in question?

The trend towards increasing risk minimisation is, paradoxically, itself risky as it risks rendering research in many areas even more meaningless and irrelevant. We are thus breeding a generation of timid academics who lack the qualities that make universities and colleges worthy of existence: independence, freedom of expression, courage.

While older professors were often able to demonstrate integrity, independence and courage, these qualities are increasingly absent among younger ones, who are being shaped in a spirit of following the beaten (read: ethically tested) path. When will we see the first journal for "non-ethics" research?

Finally, one has to ask what the growing regulatory environment, including ethical review and bureaucracy, is doing to our universities. Are they becoming better and more internationally competitive or weakened and less vital? The former university chancellor Stig Hagström's motto "review to promote" seems distant.

Mats Alvesson, professor, organisations- och ledningsforskare, Lunds universitet

Per Eriksson, professor em, f d rektor vid Lunds universitet

Lars Jacobsson, professor em i psykiatri, f d ordförande i Läkarsällskapets delegation för medicinsk etik, Umeå universitet

Erik J Olsson, professor i filosofi, ordförande i Academic Rights Watch, Lunds universitet