New research strategy has an eye on the Nobel Prize

The Danish government has launched a new research and innovation strategy aimed at both getting value for money from spending on research, innovation and the distribution of knowledge based on research, and ensuring research is of the highest quality.

Under the strategy, titled ‘Denmark: Ready for the Future. The governmental goals for Danish research and innovation’, the government will establish a ‘Nobel Pact’, strengthen technological research, gear allocation of research funding more to supporting high quality research and create better research careers for young people.

The ‘Nobel strategy’ will involve combining public funding with private foundation funding to develop some Nobel Prize winning or equivalent level researchers, Minister of Higher Education and Science Søren Pind said at the launch on 5 December.

The strategy commits the government to investing at least 1% of GNP – gross national product – in research and development each year.

“Science is going to make us capable of understanding the world around us and of dealing with the great societal challenges,” the strategy says.

Funding through private foundations has been growing strongly in recent years and since a globalisation fund was agreed upon by all parties in parliament in 2006, the Danish public research budget has increased from DKK15 billion (US$2.4 billion) to DKK22.2 billion (US$3.5 billion) in 2018.

The globalisation fund, which lasted until 2012, ensured an extra 0.5% of GNP per year was allocated to the internationalisation of research, amounting in total to DKK40 billion (US$6.3 billion) for the period 2006-12.

Since then the percentage of GNP per year allocated to research has risen. But universities are being confronted with new strategic choices.

International competition is intense

“Over recent years we have positioned ourselves as one of the strongest countries in the world with regard to scientific breakthroughs, and our scientists are among the most frequently cited in the world. But the international competition is intense, and if Denmark is to remain a research nation that is absolutely world class, we have to become even better and improve our research,” the strategy says.

“The government therefore wants to ensure that the best of our scientists are of the same calibre as the best scientists in the world, and we shall actively work towards more of our researchers taking home a Nobel Prize in the future.”

The strategy seeks to do this via the following instruments:
  • • Establishing a ‘Nobel Pact’.

  • • A new model for distributing basic funding for research based on quality.

  • • Research programmes for the future top scientists.

  • • A national European Research Council supported programme.

  • • Monitoring of the career track in Danish research.

  • • Establishment of top science groups linked to the European Spallation Source in Sweden.

  • • Membership at the Institut Laue-Langevin.

  • • A new national strategy for digital infrastructure.

  • • Analysis of investments in national research infrastructure.

  • • Establishment of Danish innovation centres.

  • • An action plan for Danish participation in EU research and innovation programmes.

Lars Qvistgaard, chairman of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations or Akademikerne, said: “A new distribution model based on a fixed basic component and one component based on performance is an interesting but difficult exercise and Akademikerne thinks that it is positive that the government in the first round is appointing an expert committee to work out concrete proposals for quality measures in a new model.”

He said a “very positive element” in the proposal is the increased focus on the career paths of scientists and their qualification for scientific positions. The government intends to reward high quality of published articles more than the number of such articles, which Akademikerne supports.

He said it would take many years to build up a research environment in the Nobel Prize class and it was right for the ministry not to rush the issue but to undertake thorough investigations via experts and work out an action plan.

Professor Jens Oddershede, chair of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy or DFiR, said the government has presented “many initiatives that will enable Danish research and innovation also in the future to be a powerhouse for the benefit of Danish society”.

He said the strategy also addresses many of the challenges for Danish research, where the system is in imbalance. “But as is known, the devil is in the detail. Some initiatives have been outlined in detail, but most of them will first be made concrete through the work in expert committees.”

He said DFiR has great expectations of the strategy. He was hopeful that it would address the timebomb created by the imbalance in research funding since the decision to allocate external funding in large chunks to a small number of programmes. “This means that the future excellence will dry out, since we have not managed to give the excellent researchers of tomorrow good enough working conditions today,” Oddershede said.

He stressed that one problem that needs to be addressed is the conflict between uncertainty over budget allocations to universities for basic research and pressure for greater career promotions for young researchers, since without certainty it is harder to recruit new talent.

“Correspondingly, the wish to support Danish research to a Nobel Prize level is not in line with the thoughts the strategy has about a broader meriting system at universities,” Oddershede said.

The Danish researchers’ magazine Forskerforum accused Pind of seeking Nobel ambition without any new money. “All the proposals are ‘expenditure neutral’ – he has not managed to wrestle one single million [DKK] from the Finance Minister."

The magazine suggested Pind is hoping that private foundations will co-fund the ‘Nobel Pact’.

Private foundations, such as Carlsberg, Novo, Lundbeck and Combat Cancer, are today funding 12% of public research, it said, and Pind wants to coordinate their contributions through a ‘Forum for Research Funding’ with three actors: the foundations, the rectors of universities and the education department head, Agnete Gersing.

“What is not mentioned is whether Pind has any agreement with these foundations that they will let themselves be politically controlled."