MPs maintain push for action over ‘questionable’ research

A proposal by right-wing politicians in Denmark to establish a national body to monitor ‘questionable’ research and a separate bid to have the Chicago principles on academic freedom written into law are unlikely to be realised any time soon, but there are fears that negative public perceptions about the integrity of university-based research might emerge from all the noise.

A proposal from Jens Henrik Thulesen Dahl of the Danish People’s Party in October 2021 to have a Danish version of the Chicago principles, a set of guidelines reflecting a commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of expression on college campuses in the United States, written into law enjoyed lengthy discussion in Denmark’s parliament last December and became the subject of a public hearing on 3 May.

Explaining the background to the hearing, the parliamentary Higher Education and Research Committee said it had become clear that a broad political majority in parliament agrees that it is important to continuously debate academic freedom, freedom of speech and freedom of research and that the Chicago principles can serve as inspiration also for Danish universities.

However, it said there is no agreement on whether new legislation or other forms of central regulations are needed to guard academic freedom or if this in the future can be done by the universities themselves.

A national board

That hearing followed an earlier discussion in parliament in March about a proposal from six MPs from the Danish Peoples’ Party, the Liberal Alliance, the New Right and one member without party affiliation, for a national board to take away from universities the responsibility for determining which research represents questionable science or violates freedom of expression.

Both proposals are part of ongoing efforts by right-wing politicians concerned about what they see as pressure on academic freedom, manifesting inter alia in “safe spaces” and “warnings about micro-aggressions” in Danish universities.

In a background note to support the adoption of the Chicago principles, its backers say they are concerned that “groups of students are pressing their co-students or teachers to accept their limited worldview under the pretext of being the protector of those marginalised groups in society”.

Public investment in the debate has seen individual researchers being targeted over the nature of their research.

Civil activist Jacob Naur, for example, has sent cases of what he believes to be examples of questionable science to universities’ research conduct committees, demanding explanations about how they can accept the poor quality of published research articles by their staff.

He has also sent several questions to Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen which have been followed up by questions in parliament by right-wing politicians.

In response, Petersen has defended research freedom and free speech as “fundamental principles in a democratic state such as Denmark” and Danish universities as places of “free debate, confrontation of arguments and conclusions”.

In defence of universities

On the proposal to establish a national oversight board to monitor research, he has expressed his confidence in the ability of universities to safeguard academic freedom.

“As research, knowledge and teaching institutions, it shall be science that decides. That is not to be challenged either by students, politicians, opinion-makers or other scientists.

“I want freedom and pluralism for research. There are not going to be issues that one cannot have opinions on or express in public or do research on because of pressure from specific interests or from economic reasons.”

The idea of an external board has, as expected, also been rejected by universities.

Jesper Langergaard, director of peak body Universities Denmark, told University World News it was a “bad idea” and would likely create more red tape.

“The universities do not find it useful or necessary to establish a central national research board.

“The praxis committees at the universities today are treating the cases factually and impartially and there is nothing that is indicating that a national research board will lessen the barrier that can exist for starting a case on scientific misconduct or questionable scientific work.

“The establishment of a national research board will risk introducing more unneeded bureaucracy and waiting time and will not lead to more objective treatment of cases of scientific misconduct,” he said.

A ‘politically flammable’ topic

Reflecting on the public hearing, Professor Emeritus Heine Andersen of the University of Copenhagen, who is author of a book on research freedom, told University World News the topic of academic freedom “regularly pops up as a politically flammable topic”.

He said in his opinion “the most serious problems with academic freedom and freedom of expression at Danish universities have nothing to do with identity politics, wokeness etc, but are due to external pressure from powerful lobby organisations, lack of economic independence and lack of collegial self-governance.

“Conditions [in Denmark] are not comparable to those in the United States, and the Chicago principles will not do much to solve the real problem,” he said.

Meanwhile, attacks on individual academics continue.

Among those academics whose work has been targeted is Professor Rikke Andreassen from Roskilde University, where she conducts research on the media with a focus on gender and race.

Her 2017 paper “Race, Gender and Researcher Positionality Analysed Through Memory Work”, published in the Nordic Journal of Migration Research, was the subject of a parliamentary question in December 2021 initiated by Morten Messerschmidt (Danish People’s Party): “Does the minister think that in the light of this case [there] is a need for sharpening of the universities with the message that they have an extraordinary role in securing Danish research integrity and honesty?”

Andreassen told online magazine Forskerforum in a recent article about the harassment of Danish academics that she had been exposed during her career to hate mail and threats. She even had a stalker who harassed her and threatened her because of her research and only stopped after a police surveillance order was issued last year.

During the stalking case, politicians Henrik Dahl of the Liberal Alliance and Messerschmidt launched a forceful critique of her gender and migration research, which they labelled “pseudo research”.

Andreassen said the harassment she has experienced over the last year exceeds anything she had experienced before “because it takes place at a high political level”.

A greater political game

“I feel that I have become a pawn in a greater political game which is not directed towards me and my research but more is an attack against research areas,” Andreassen told Forskerforum.

In a critique of another researcher, Dahl told parliament on 28 May that research on race and migration was “strongly politicised and without clear borders between activism and research, and there are many other examples of activism in Danish research … I can mention Signe Uldbjerg in Women, Gender and Research (in Danish) on February 8, 2021”.

Uldbjerg, who is based at the school of communication and culture at Aarhus University, told University World News she had not been inconvenienced by having her work referred to as an example of scientific misconduct.

“Personally, I have not felt a particularly negative impact on my research following the debates of the past year. On the contrary, I have been disseminating a lot more than I otherwise would – out of spite, mostly.

“However, I have colleagues who are more careful about participating in the media and sharing their research following these debates, and some who have faced quite severe harassment.

“I might not be the best person to talk to about this; I have been an activist for many years before getting into academia, so I am very used to harassment, and I felt a lot safer confronting it when being supported by an academic institution than I have done previously, standing alone as an activist.

“With that said, I am, on a more general level, deeply concerned with the developments taking place in Denmark regarding state regulations of academic research.

“It is not so much just the implementation of a version of the Chicago principles (which have a problematic enough history already), but the fact that this suggestion, and the former ones, come from politicians who have very clear-cut agendas against certain fields of research – including my field (gender studies).

“Areas like gender and critical race studies are only just finding their ways into the Danish academies, and I see these political initiatives as very serious pushbacks against the implementation of research fields that can enhance equality at the universities and in Danish society.

“What concerns me the most is the devaluation of research (and researchers) which have the potential to expose and criticise unequal power structures.”

Heine Andersen is professor emeritus from the department of sociology at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, and Jan Petter Myklebust is Nordic correspondent for University World News.