Can the Danish miracle in world-class research endure?

Denmark is in a leading position in the world with regard to production of high-class scientific research and in particular the impact of this research, according to a report presented by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy.

The report provides an extensive analysis of comparative data between Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden, with all three being “high-performance research impact countries”.

The analysis draws on a report entitled Links between Research Policy and National Academic Performance: A comparative study of Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands produced by the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy, or CFA, at Aarhus University, the Technopolis Group and the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, or NIFU, in Oslo.

Based on this ‘CFA report’, the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy, or DFiR, has produced its own report, World-Class Knowledge, with several recommendations and with some warnings on how the Danish position might erode in the future.

The DFiR report is presently being revised as a policy document for the government.

It was presented at a conference on “World-Class Knowledge” hosted by DFiR in Copenhagen in June, with interventions from high-level policy officers from Sweden and the Netherlands.

The original ‘CFA report’ presented a comprehensive literature review of the status quo in research funding, excellence schemes, PhD education, university governance, internationalisation and collaboration as research policy factors encompassed in reforms, and gives in-depth country descriptions and timelines of important reforms in the period 1980-2014.

Highly cited breakthroughs

The report focuses in particular on the ability to produce highly cited breakthrough research articles in the three countries. This is seen in relation to major policy changes in the three countries mapped along the timeline producing several very interesting hypotheses that are tested against the three case studies.

The timeline for Denmark, for example, lists as the most important milestones of policy change the “introduction of major strategic programmes” in 1985; the Danish National Research Foundation establishment in 1991; the first Ministry of Research in 1993; PhD reforms and the new university act in 1993-94; the Research Councils reform in 2002; the Danish National Advanced Technology Foundation in 2005; the Globalisation Strategy in 2006-12; the university mergers in 2007-08 and performance-based funding from 2008.

The post-2003 period in Denmark has seen transformation of major parts of the research system at an unprecedented pace. In general, these reforms can be seen as an attempt to open up the universities to the outside world and to the needs of the corporate sector in particular.

“How these developments affect the long-term academic performance is an open question,” the report says.

The report, in looking at government and private investments in research, found that the structure for achieving Danish success was in place before the heavy infusion of additional funding through the Globalisation Fund 2006-12, which allocated an additional DKK40 billion (US$6 billion) to the higher education and research system in this period, on top of the yearly government budget allocations, notably doubling the number of PhD candidates.

Contributing factors

DFiR in its report identifies the factors that have contributed to “the Danish miracle”. These are the balance between basic and external funding, the use of excellence tools, PhD reforms, governance at universities, internationalisation, and public-private collaboration.

The conference discussed the balance between these factors in Denmark compared to Sweden and the Netherlands, trying in particular to identify the drivers behind “research excellence”.

The report casts some light on the Swedish development of national research policies since 1980 and the possible reasons why – despite significant investments allocating more government expenditure to research than the other two countries – Sweden has not seen such high-performance research impact as Denmark.

Sven Stafström, director-general of the Swedish Research Council, commented at the conference on the key explanations of why Sweden has fallen behind Denmark and the Netherlands. In the report this is attributed to three factors: a weakened quality culture; insufficient academic leadership and a relative absence of collegial systems for internal quality control.

Stafström said that the rapid expansion of Swedish research over the past 10 years has led to a large number of recruitments and a significantly larger scientific output, but relatively few outstanding contributions as well as a decrease in funding per researcher and a non-competitive recruitment to research positions instead of competitive tenure track positions.

Professor Uri Rosenthal of the Dutch Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, who is also a former Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands (2010-12), said that the reason for the Dutch successes in science impact is a balanced policy mix brought about by the Dutch consensus model ‘Polderen’.

Rosenthal advised Denmark to keep research infrastructure in good shape; to shift from research output to research relations, and from output to social relevance; to look towards transdisciplinary research to help solve grand societal challenges; and to be modest in pursuing radical reforms.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the DFiR, who also chaired the conference, told University World News that for Denmark to keep its strong position in world-class research impact, the main challenge is how to maintain the strong focus on research excellence alongside the many other tasks a researcher has to engage in, such as teaching, outreach and collaboration with business.

“Here, the recruitment of new talent, a continuing international collaboration and maintaining an innovative research culture are important factors.”

He said there is an ‘hour-glass-shaped’ problem.

“In recent years in Denmark there has been a strong increase in very large centres of excellence that focus on the absolute top level of senior researcher. In addition, graduate education has doubled since 2007.

“Thus, less resources have been devoted to the ‘middle layer’: post-doc position, junior faculty position and talent recruiting programmes.

“This development with many resources allocated to the top and beginning of the career ladder runs the risk of creating an ‘hour-glass’ problem. Thus, DFiR recommends that more programmes and more funding focus on the middle layer of the career ladder in order to also have an absolute top in the future.”

Long-sighted focus

Peter Høngaard Andersen, CEO of the Innovation Fund Denmark – which is funded by the ministry of higher education and science and in 2016 will invest DKK1.25 billion (US$190 million) in creating growth and employment through new knowledge and technology – said although the DFiR report concludes that Danish university research is world class, it also points out several important challenges in order to keep it that way.

“We need to keep our universities at the present high level and at the same time address the challenge that we still don't see enough of these public research investments transformed into real value when it comes to the Danish economy, that is, growth and innovation.

“In order to work on increasing the societal value, the system needs to focus long-sighted and with great flexibility – bottom up before earmarked funding – on bringing research closer to both business and society.”

Kaare Aagaard, senior researcher at the Danish Centre for Studies in Research and Research Policy at Aarhus University, who was responsible for the report and who presented it at the conference, said: “Obviously current funding cuts do not help the situation, but according to our analysis there are some more fundamental imbalances in the Danish system which we need to address if we aim to maintain our position in the international hierarchy.

“In particular, we need to look at the funding balances and the composition of the career system. Stable (or increased) funding in itself will not solve these challenges.”