The Chairman of SND – an optimist with an eye for solutions

News: 2012-09-21

– When I was asked, it was difficult to say no.
Anders Brändström is looking forward to his new assignment as Chairman of SND. He has numerous ideas on how to develop the organization, and is not particularly worried about possible obstacles along the way. In his opinion, a slight storm isn't necessarily a bad thing.

As an example he mentions the issues surrounding personal and registry data that have recently been up for debate.

– I think it's solely positive that these things are being discussed. When it comes to the Data Inspection Board, for example, I believe that their decision was intended as a way of showing the problems related to personal data. They probably want to stir up some activity among the decision-makers and make them deal with the problems and the uncertainty concerning the current legislation.

The fact that these questions are brought up for discussion is, according to Anders Brändström, something that primarily opens up new possibilities. This interpretation is in line with the answer he gives to the question on what his major strength is:

– I'm a steady optimist, I believe that there is always a solution. On top of that, I am

Photo: Torbjörn Berglund

stubborn and persistent, I never give up. Those are traits that make a pretty good combination, he says, laughing.


Anders Brändström is Professor of Historical Demography as well as Director of the Demographic Data Base at Umeå University. His own research has mainly focused on the period before 1900 and the topics include infant mortality, development of public health and history of hospitals. In recent times, issues such as aging and living conditions as well as how social patterns are transferred between generations have all attracted Anders Brändströms interest as a scientist. He gives an example:

– In one of the studies I examined families with many children. I could see how this certain pattern was then transferred to the next generation, which had many children as well. And it was not the women who decided how many children the family should have. Instead, it depended on whether the man came from a family with many siblings or not.

One hundred percent management tasks

In recent years, Anders Brändströms own research has been steadily declining. At first it was reduced to one month per year, nowadays it is more or less non-existent. Brändström emphasizes, however, that this has been a deliberate choice on his part.

– I have chosen to take on administrative and research management duties. Some people manage to have dual roles, but when the administrative tasks start taking one hundred percent, you have to make a choice.

In addition to working half-time as Chairman of the Demographic Data Base – with its nearly 70 employees – Anders Brändström is the leader of a Linnaeus environment with around 30 scientists. He also works on assignments for the Swedish Research Council (VR), Riksbankens jubileumsfond, the Knowledge Foundation (KK-stifelsen) and the Central Ethical Review Board. A couple of these were completed this year, something which enabled Brändström to accept the five-year position as Chairman of the SND steering committee.

– I have followed SND since its creation and am looking forward to doing so as Chairman from now on. SND plays an important and necessary part in the Swedish research community, he says.

Developing contact with the scientific community

One of the things he wants to develop is SND's contact with and supporting of the scientific community. He considers this an area where SND needs to be more proactive. SND could for instance invite to conferences and workshops, offer lectures and bring forward best practice in data management.

–  We must conquer this arena and show the great specialist knowledge that is available at SND. Here, researchers can get help on how to document data in the best way or what applies legally for different types of studies.

The three teams within the humanities, medicine and social sciences will play a key role in the development, along with the reference groups of leading researchers that are to be formed for each team. How the teams and reference groups will actually work won't be determined by neither the Chairman nor the steering committee, but Anders Brändström's guess is that the work will be different depending on the discipline.

– The social science part has been active for a long time and therefore has the most developed structure. Medicine is quite different, with their registry and biobanks data. An important challenge when it comes to the work there is the handling of sensitive personal data and privacy.

Confident look at the future

The trickiest field, as Anders Brändström puts it, is the humanities. His belief is that some of SND's major challenges are to be found within this domain. This is mainly due to the fact that researchers within the humanities work with completely different types of material than what is used in areas such as the social sciences. Examples of “humanities-related” material are images, sounds and objects of various kinds.

– Since we're talking about a large amount of material that is fairly new to SND, we have to somehow define our area. Maybe we shouldn't take care of all kinds of material within every field. It is therefore important for the team and the reference group to sit down and decide which fields should be prioritized, says Brändström.

Anders Brändström has a confident outlook on the future and will together with the rest of the steering committee prioritize the upcoming work on the budget.

– It is very important to secure a long-term financing of SND. We're noticing that there is a need for a substantial increase of resources.

Hello there ...

... Professor Emeritus of Sociology and former Chairman of SND, Rune Åberg.

What advice do you have for your successor, Anders Brändström, as he is about to start his new mission?

– First of all, I would like to say that I am pleased to see him taking over the chairmanship. He really has a lot of useful knowledge in the field. When it comes to what is essential for the future, I believe that it is of strategic importance for SND to take part in the discussion related to research on registry data, as well as to look at what role SND should play in this research. Another key issue is what SND should do in order to reach out to the scientific community in a better way.

Rune Åberg and Anders Brändström have the same ideas on how to develop SND in relation to research groups and individual researchers. They both highlight conferences and reference groups to the three teams at SND as examples of good activities.

– Above all, I would like focus to be on the database-related activities. It's important to look at what SND can do to help Swedish researchers gain access to information and material from the major international databases. Focus should also be put on establishing contacts with the national databases and making these databases accessible to more researchers.

What databases would that be in particular?

– Well, for example, there is the large Demographic Data Base in Umeå, which Brändström himself is the director of. And LifeGene of course, which is represented in the steering committee by Nancy Pedersen. Then there are several other large data collections where they deal with the labour market, for example IFAU in Uppsala as well as SOFI in Stockholm. And these are but a few.

Rune Åberg envisions an SND that serves as a junction point for all major databases in Sweden.

– It would be great if SND could create a unifying operation that not only provides information on databases but also responds to questions and helps lead researchers right.

Photo: Torbjörn Berglund