The research and educational environment Embedded Systems at Mälardalen University (MDU) focuses on software embedded in different products. The research is ranked among the best in the world internationally, and the discipline is the most research-intensive field at MDU. Already from the start 20 years ago, the environment collaborated intensely with industry, and today the research and educational environment works with almost 100 business partners such as ABB, Alstom, Ericsson and Volvo.
(From the Knowledge Foundation’s Annual Report 2018)
It has taken 20 years to build up the research environment, and Hans Hansson is one of the people who has been there since day one. In 1997, when he was recruited from Uppsala University to build up the research in computer science at Mälardalen, he became the university college’s first professor. This was a deliberate investment funded by the regions in which the university operates.
– I arrived in an exciting environment with strong links to industry but perhaps not as well-developed research in purely academic terms, although there were a couple of staff with PhDs and some people who were enrolled as doctoral students at other universities. What those of us with a stronger academic background brought was the scientific method and experience of science publishing, he says.
– Of course our proximity to companies like ABB and Volvo CE, who became important partners early on, has been a major advantage. But it isn’t just about the geography; it’s also about the fact that many people move between academia and the business sector. The main thing is that the researchers are getting used to talking to engineers in industry.
Från fokus på grundutbildning till universitet
As with all the then university colleges, almost all focus as on first-cycle courses and study programmes when Hans Hansson arrived at Mälardalen. His recruitment was the start of a journey to a complete environment in embedded systems, with second cycle education and research.
In 2001 Mälardalen was granted the right to run third cycle programmes (doctoral studies) and a few years later an engineering programme was launched. Today, on top of this, we can add bachelor’s and engineering programmes, as well as master’s programmes. 2022 marks an additional milestone, as the university gained university status.
– The decision to grant Mälardalen university status is a political decision that was enabled thanks to the hard work of regional politicians, keenly cheered on by our business sector partners. The grounds for the decision lie in many years of persistent value creation for surrounding society based on fantastic efforts by the university’s researchers, lecturers and leadership, Hans says.
Knowledge Foundation a key financier
MDU has a high proportion of externally funded research. 58 percent of research income came from external actors and partners in 2021. Embedded systems is the biggest specialisation at the university, in terms of both the number of researchers and research income. Of the 30 professors in embedded systems, 25 have permanent posts and five are adjunct or visiting professors.
The Knowledge Foundation came on board as an important financier at an early stage. Mälardalen Real-Time Research Centre (MRTC) was the other research profile funded by the Knowledge Foundation. Today the university has three research profiles, two of which are run within Embedded Systems: DPAC and ESS-H. There are also the Industrial Graduate Schools ARRAY, IndTech and ITS ESS-H. MDU also has ongoing funding in other programmes offered by the Knowledge Foundation.
– At Embedded Systems we have always made use of the ‘professor argument’ in recruitment, in other words we offer researchers the opportunity to take this step before their own university has recognised that they have reached this level. We have a relatively high number of professors, and here it’s not just about status but about providing a platform to work from. People who want to run their own research have opportunities to do so here. But when it comes to research funding, no researcher is guaranteed anything. This is a cornerstone that gives us great flexibility and one that has been with us constantly while we were building the environment. It’s an important component that has enabled us to succeed in growing, Hans says.
Collaboration and external contacts important
Malin Rosqvist is one of the project managers in the research environment who works a great deal with external contacts and partners. Malin also works at the ITS-EASY Industrial Graduate School and was previously project manager for the PROMPT, project, a professional master’s programme in software technology that ran under the Knowledge Foundation’s programme Expertkompetens for ten years. Other universities were also involved in the project, and it achieved good results.
PROMPT was the start of a whole portfolio of projects that link together research and education and act as competence development for working professionals and students. The courses were co-produced with companies and contribute to make the programme even more relevant to the business sector, explains Malin.
– There is an awareness and openness amongst the researchers when it comes to seeking collaborations and new research projects, both internally and externally,” Malin continues. “We’re always discussing what we’re going to do next so as not to lose competence or contacts with the companies and our partners.
Hans Hansson points out that a special culture has emerged which is one of the university’s most important assets, having made a huge contribution to the formation of a strong research and educational environment.
– For example, we have lots of researchers that run activities – and all of them must apply for their own funding. When we bring in international postdocs, we help them to apply for their own money as quickly as possible. Often this is successful, and they get their own funding before the funding we recruited them with has run out. This culture, which also builds on the fact that everyone being geared towards working together within the environment, has resulted in us experiencing growth that is continuing. Inspired by working methods in Embedded Systems, in 2016 a new department was launched tasked with administering applications for the entire university, he says.
– For the researchers in Embedded Systems, it has been essential that support around application processes and consortium building has been integrated in the research environment,” Malin Rosqvist explains. “The fact that we know each other well and work closely together has been a success factor that can be measured in the number of projects and the number of active partners. Cooperation is equally important externally and internally between researchers and different research groups, she says.
– Our network is important too,” Malin continues. “Universities in Sweden and internationally that we can work with in different research projects are key members. We are constantly trying to be open to contexts and projects where we can join forces with others and find calls for proposals that might suit a particular type of partner, Malin says.