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Debate: Is non-earmarked research funding also facing the axe?

If anyone can feel the new winds blowing from the direction of the new minister for higher education and science, it must be the universities. Stringent cost reduction requirements for the degree programmes are being contemplated and the minister has previously shown himself to be sceptical about allocating funding for non-earmarked research.


By Allan Flyvbjerg, Dean of the Faculty of Health, Aarhus University and Ole Steen Nielsen, Vice-dean for Research, Aarhus University.

The university students were the first to be given a dressing down. They should know that the university is no Paradise Hotel, where you go to relax. Then just the previous week it was the turn of "the overfed education sector". Over the next four years it will be subjected to annual cost reduction requirements of two per cent. Or as the minister calls it – a “reprioritisation contribution”.

I wonder if the Danish Council for Independent Research is the next item on the minister's list?

Before Esben Lunde Larsen moved into his new office at the ministry, he repeatedly brought up the idea of abolishing the Danish Council for Independent Research and placing it instead under the auspices of the Danish National Research Foundation. It is less than a year since the then Danish Liberal Party spokesman on research and education Esben Lunde Larsen told the Danish newspaper Politiken, that the Danish Council for Independent Research had an “unrealistic understanding of” what public research funding should be used for. And in April 2013 he even wrote a whole feature article under the heading ‘Abolish the Danish Council for Independent Research'.

There are currently three public sources of funding for Danish research: Innovation Fund Denmark, The Danish National Research Foundation and the Danish Council for Independent Research. All three are invaluable and indispensable sources for promoting Danish research and development. Innovation Fund Denmark is clearly targeted at entrepreneurs and researchers with projects that can immediately create growth and jobs. The Danish National Research Foundation provides funding for Danish Centres of Excellence, which are major basic research initiatives. In practice, funding is given to and managed by established and experienced researchers with weighty research CVs.

That leaves the Danish Council for Independent Research, which has the objective of “supporting and promoting the most original ideas and initiatives in Danish research.” Even though the current political winds are blowing in the direction of more strategic and business-oriented research, which can – possibly – be more quickly read off on the nation’s bottom line, there is good reason to emphasise the importance of continuing to allocate funds for the fledgling ”out-of-the-box research idea.” The Danish Council for Independent Research distinguishes itself precisely by making room for new and maybe out-of-the-box ideas, not least from the younger researchers at the beginning of their research career.

Such out-of-the-box ideas also make a major contribution towards promoting innovation, which is considered to be of decisive importance for Denmark's competitiveness. Danish universities have many good examples of research ideas, which began as small and nerdy ideas, but which ended up benefiting society, either as new forms of treatment, a technological breakthrough, a new patent or an export success.

We therefore completely agree with the Danish Nobel Prize winner Jens Christian Skou, who has formulated this very precisely: “Basic research should not be managed from above but from below. It must be the researchers’ ideas that determine what research should be carried out. Programme funding and strategy plans force researchers to go where the money is, but letting the money determine what research should be carried out, leads to mediocrity.”

In our opinion, we have a rational three-pronged foundation for Danish public research funding.

Before making any rash decisions about the future of the Danish Council for Independent Research, it is also worth remembering that less than a year ago, the council received top marks from an international panel of independent experts in an evaluation commissioned by the Folketinget (the Danish Parliament). The expert panel, consisting of top researchers from Europe and Canada, highlighted that Danish basic researchers were among the best in the world, and that the state system that finances them functions extremely well. The expert panel therefore concluded that: “Taking into account that the Danish research funding foundations to a high degree constitute an impressively healthy ecosystem, fundamental organisational changes should not be made to the well-functioning system.”

The minister has also recently stated that there are no current plans to change the Danish research structure. We must hope that he sticks to this….


Debatindlægget er bragt på Altinget.dk den 8. september 2015 

By Allan Flyvbjerg, Dean of the Faculty of Health, Aarhus University and Ole Steen Nielsen, Vice-dean for Research, Aarhus University.

Research, Health and disease, Academic staff, Health, Health, PhD students