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Agency analysis of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics (2017:16)

The Swedish Agency for Public Management (Statskontoret) has conducted an agency analysis of the Institute of Space Physics (IRF), on behalf of the Swedish Government. This means that we have analysed the IRF’s circumstances, preconditions, activities, achievements and challenges.

The overall mission of the IRF is to conduct and promote research and development work of the highest scientific quality, along with measuring and recording activities, primarily in the field of space physics. The Institute has the task of participating in education at the third-level or postgraduate level at the Uppsala University and Umeå University, and may participate in such educational activities at other universities and institutions of higher education.

The Agency carries out its tasks and responsibilities in a very commendable manner

Statskontoret has made the assessment that the IRF fulfils its tasks and responsibilities in a very commendable manner. In recent years, two of the Institute’s research programmes in particular have been extremely successful, not least in an international perspective. Furthermore, the Institute is a highly valued cooperative partner and its employees feel that they have stimulating work in a positive and participative environment.

Among the challenges faced by the Institute include efforts to strengthen the cooperation between the research programme and the locations where the Institute’s activities take place, streamlining the Director’s role, making decisions regarding the future of two of the Institute’s research programmes, and developing a strategy for competence provision

Statskontoret has also made the assessment that these challenges need to be addressed in order that the IRF will achieve good results in the future.

The Government’s governance of the IRF and its role in space research in Sweden

It is Statskontoret’s assessment that the Government’s governance of the IRF is appropriate. At the same time, the Government should clarify what role the IRF should have in Swedish and international space activities in the future. In turn, the IRF should report to the Government how the Institute wants to contribute to further develop space research in Sweden and to report on the costs that such a development would entail.

The use of the framework funding requires clear principles

Statskontoret’s analysis shows that the Institute uses the framework funding as a form of regulator after the research grants have been allocated within the activities. We believe that the allocation of the framework funding should instead be based on clear, transparent and predictable principles and policies. For example, the IRF should clarify how long the research programme should be able to sustain their research with the bulk of its financing from the framework funding.

The collaboration between the various activities of the IRF needs to be strengthened

The collaboration between the locations where the IRF activities take place and the research programmes is very limited today. Although competition is a natural part of the research activities, the assessment of Statskontoret is that there is a risk that the Institute does not make use of synergies between the research programmes and between IRF’s work offices, for example in the exchange of personnel resources.

The future needs of the PAF and STP research programmes needs to be clarified

The IRF’s research, in similarity with other research activities, is highly dependent upon external research grants. It is also natural that the interest in different fields of research fields varies over time, and thus the possibilities of finding funding.

The external research grants to the Polar Atmospheric Research (PAF) and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (STP) research programmes have been at lower levels in recent years. Statskontoret welcomes the fact that the IRF has, at the time of this analysis, taken the initiative to develop a change in the focus and organisation of the programmes. However, the IRF has not yet made a decision on this issue.

The IRF is a highly valued partner, but the cooperation with Swedish universities and other educational institutions lacks strategic management

Statskontoret notes that the IRF is a highly valued partner, both nationally and internationally. External parties say that they obtain great benefit from working with the IRF and that their research continues to be of high scientific quality.

At the same time, Statskontoret’s analysis shows that representatives from Umeå University, Uppsala University and Luleå University of Technology are somewhat less positive about the cooperation with the IRF compared with other external institutions.

What the universities are looking for is a clearer structure for the cooperation, more involvement and interest from the IRF’s management, and strategic discussions concerning what the future cooperation will look like. It is our opinion therefore that there is room for the IRF to improve the cooperation with these educational institutions. 

The Director’s role needs to be refined

The Director of the IRF currently has three roles at the Institute: administrator of the authority, the head of one of the largest research programmes, the Solar System Physics and Space Technology (SSPT) research programme, and the project manager for one of the projects within the SSPT. Despite the good results from i.a. the SSPT, the analysis of Statskontoret of various alternatives shows that the role of the Director needs to be transformed into being only the administrator of the Institute. There are two primary reasons for our assessment.

One reason is that the current arrangements undermine the trust and the personnel’s confidence in the Director as the administrator of the Institute. Departments and other managers in the Institute’s management, trade union representatives and a majority of the employees we interviewed are of the opinion that there is a risk that conflicts of interest are likely to arise.

The second reason is the Director’s high workload, due to the many different roles. This workload has two main consequences in the organisation. Firstly, it has been stated that the Director is not sufficiently aware of what is occurring within the SSPT and therefore cannot exercise sufficient leadership. Secondly, the Director tend to drag on when making  decisions regarding the IRF’s management.

The Deputy Director’s work tasks and responsibilities should be clarified

In connection with IRF refining the Director’s role, the Institute should also clarify the Deputy Director’s work tasks and responsibilities. The IRF’s work and delegation of authority scheme does not describe what the Deputy Director’s role in the Institute should be. His/her duties consist primarily of supporting the Director in management matters and project management for a research project in Solar-Terrestrial Physics. It is our assessment that a clarification would make the Deputy Director’s role clear for the employees, which would contribute to a more distinct leadership at the Institute.

The IRF has a good working environment, but with a very high workload for research engineers and technicians

Statskontoret’s analysis shows that overall the working environment at the IRF is generally very good. At the same time, particularly research engineers and technicians experience that the workload is too high, especially those working in SSPT. According to Statskontoret, important measures are to include that their programme manager allocates more time to remain informed about what is happening in the research programme, and that the cooperation between the technical staff and researchers functions in a more efficient manner.

The Institute needs to further improve its work with skills provision

Statskontoret’s assessment is that currently there is no long-term plan in place for the IRF’s skills provision when personnel expertise is a key factor for success for the Institute. Therefore, the IRF should develop a plan on skills provision, which identifies the expertise and skills presently available at the Institute and what expertise and skills will be needed in the short-term and over the long-term. The IRF should also develop a strategy for how the IRF will ensure that the necessary skills are available at the Institute.

Statskontoret’s recommendations

Statskontoret recommends that the Government

  • give a special mandate to the IRF to specify how the Institute is to contribute to further developing space research in Sweden
  • after the IRF’s report on the mandate, clarify its views concerning the Institute’s role and focus in Swedish and international space activities.

Statskontoret recommends that the IRF

  • develops a strategy with the principles for how the framework funding is to be used
  • establishes procedures for how cooperation is to take place between the research programmes and between work offices, in order to establish the preconditions for coordination benefits and other synergies
  • considers measures that can increase the feeling of that the IRF is an institution
  • decides, as soon as possible, on the future of the organisation and the direction of the Polar Atmospheric Research (PAF) and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (STP) research programmes
  • develops strategies for how and in which areas the Institute will collaborate with Uppsala University, Umeå University and Luleå University of Technology
  • conducts ongoing dialogues concerning strategic issues regarding cooperation with the respective universities
  • refines the Director’s role so that he/she does not have any role at the IRF other than the administrator of the Institute
  • describes the Deputy Director’s work tasks and responsibilities in the Institute’s work and delegation of the Institute’s scheme
  • reviews the work situation for research engineers and technicians, especially those linked to associated with the SSPT
  • draws up a plan for skills provision
  • considers whether more research engineers and technicians need to be recruited and hired.