How the Swedish principle of collective responsibility keeps science running smoothly

An illustration for lab cleaning day

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Cleaning together can be a great equaliser

Sharing equipment can be a trigger point for arguments in any lab. Who changed the settings on this incubator? Why is this centrifuge still broken? These disputes can quickly escalate and become personal. So the way my group works might sound like it would generate a lot of conflict.

At the technical university I work at in Stockholm, Sweden, several small research groups share a whole floor of lab space. Every piece of equipment in the lab can be used by everyone, no matter whose grant paid for it. Yet despite the risk of instrument damage this policy might seem to invite, our diverse collection of microbiologists, biochemists, polymer chemists and materials scientists all work together in a functional sort of harmony.

We keep everything running smoothly through a system based on the Swedish principle of collective responsibility. This principle – that all members of a group are jointly responsible for decision making – means that we all share the duties of looking after the lab’s physical infrastructure.

Anyone who spends more than six months working with us, from thesis students up to full professors, acts as the caretaker for at least one item of equipment or area of the lab, and is responsible for training new users and keeping on top of maintenance. The intention behind our system is to foster a sense of communal ownership of lab equipment, as well as respect for other people’s research. I take care of the machine you might need, and I trust that you take care of the machine I might need.

This policy is a major contributor to the flat hierarchy of personnel that we strive for, which is another defining aspect of Swedish society at large. In our university, this structure means that students feel free to email or call their teachers, and to always use their first names. In the lab, it means that even the professors are expected to take part in the dishwashing rota.

As well as this constant care and general maintenance, twice a year we hold a lab cleaning day. Attendance is mandatory for every lab member, and no-one is permitted to do their own work until every surface and every machine has been cleaned and serviced. The day begins with a meeting where we go through the responsibility list, which is a good way to remind everyone of the tasks that need doing and check that everyone feels comfortable with their roles. The whole lab has lunch together and we share a fika (coffee and cake) in the afternoon, so it turns into a pretty fun day.

Of course, not everyone takes their responsibilities equally seriously all of the time. Even experienced members can slip up; travelling to conferences or having a heavy teaching load can make it tempting to let something like ‘schedule FPLC maintenance’ fall off the end of a to-do list, or to postpone an instrument training session.

To address these problems we have to talk through issues when they occur, and call out bad behaviour politely but firmly. This is another area where our flat hierarchy proves valuable. If a common piece of lab equipment breaks down on your watch, no-one is afraid to confront you and ask that you fix it right away. Not even the most hardened senior postdoc wants to face down a gang of thesis students working to a tight deadline.

But the system isn’t perfect. Despite great progress, our university is far from immune to the gender imbalances that pervade academia as a whole. It is well documented that female staff members are more likely than their male counterparts to take on the larger part of the ‘housekeeping’ tasks that go unnoticed and unrewarded, but which are vital to ensuring a positive work environment. I’ve noticed that male professors are more likely than their female counterparts to reach a stage where they unilaterally decide to stop doing the dishes. It also tends to fall more to women to update noticeboard displays and to arrange gifts or celebrations for graduating students.

It can be hard to know how to make lab mates aware of these discrepancies without being seen as a constant complainer. It helps that we have a lab meeting every Friday morning, which is an open forum for discussions about lab issues. Wherever possible, we work together in this formal setting to make plans for improvement, thereby preventing complaints from getting too personal.

It is vital that we all collectively take responsibility for the wellbeing of every person as well as every piece of equipment, to protect the friendly and collaborative atmosphere we’re trying to foster, and maintain the diversity that makes our lab strong. I believe that respect for other lab members and their research is fundamental to making our science strong as well.