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Full support for researchers in the case of the agricultural package

Aarhus University gives its full support to the researchers who provide public sector consultancy services, according to Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen. This is in response to an article published in Friday’s edition of Berlingske about the agricultural package approved by the Danish Parliament.

2016.03.07 | Niels Christian Nielsen

Full support for baseline researchers, according to Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen.

With a starting point in all that has recently been written in the media about public sector consultancy, I would like to express my full support of the considerable work carried out by the researchers under great pressure from both authorities and organisations. You have demonstrated that quality and independence are key concepts for our public sector consultancy, and that we do not compromise on professionalism.

The current problem was highlighted in today’s edition of Berlingske in an article entitled ‘Public servants put pressure on environmental researchers’. The article focuses on some of the challenges faced by a number of Aarhus University’s researchers in connection with their contribution to the government’s agricultural package. The article illustrates the pressure experienced by researchers from both authorities and interest groups when they provide consultancy services.

The article also reflects the fact that our researchers stick to their professional assessments. I would like to emphasise – on my own behalf as well as that of the Senior Management Team – that we fully support the researchers and the way they go about cases like this.

Professional quality, transparency and independence

If we take a step back, we can see that the process regarding the government’s agricultural package has brought into focus the important role played by Aarhus University’s independent, research-based consultancy in terms of the development of the Danish society. At the same time, the case has illustrated some of the conditions that can make public sector consultancy a challenging task.

Good public sector consultancy is based on three things: professional quality, transparency and independence.

First of all, research-based public sector consultancy consists of two components – the development and maintenance of a high-quality research base in the relevant field, and the provision of research-based consultancy services in response to tasks requested by the authorities. Independent research forms the foundation when a research group takes on an assignment to provide the authorities with advice regarding a specific scientific issue within a clear framework. In other words, the researchers do not ask the questions themselves. And nobody can dictate the answers. Methodologies and conclusions are the responsibility of the researchers, and they can only provide answers for which there is research evidence.

In this context, transparency is a crucial premise. When the authorities choose to seek advice from university researchers – and not from private consultancy firms, for example – the conclusions and intermediate results are openly accessible, and anyone is able to verify the methodologies and scrutinise the conclusions. Situations can arise where the conclusions are politically inconvenient or cover areas with significant commercial interests, but they must never influence the work of the researchers. Researchers must be accountable to society and their peers – and both parties must be able to figure out the methodologies and prerequisites that the conclusions are based on.

Independence is also crucial for society to trust the research and the university as an institution. In connection with public sector consultancy, it is both natural and customary that the civil service and the political system have follow-up questions to the work of the researchers. The critical principle here is that the researchers maintain their professionalism and quality. It is not easy to manoeuvre under pressure in a situation with strong interests at stake, but it is nevertheless crucial that we do so. If we start sacrificing our independence and compromise our professional quality, we have failed the task.

The case of the agricultural package is an example of our principles sometimes coming under pressure. It has also shown that our researchers nevertheless stick to their principles. Our great value for society actually consists of providing high-quality answers while working together with all parties and maintaining a professional distance. Our researchers do this every day with both private and public partners.

This is a crucial quality for Aarhus University, which I personally and the Senior Management Team will support at all times.

Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen, Science and Technology, Aarhus University



Research, Agriculture and food, All groups, All AU units, Science and Technology, Collaboration, Environment, climate and energy, External target group, Policy and strategy