Minister reaches out to scientists over freedom concerns

A meeting scheduled to take place on 22 August between key figures in the Danish research system and the Danish Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen and other party leaders has been hailed as an “important breakthrough” in concerted efforts to raise awareness about the plight of research in the country.

The meeting follows the delivery to Petersen and the chairs of all political parties in parliament of a petition, also known as the “Freedom Letter”, drafted by a group of scientists from around the country, which garnered 2,252 signatures from scientists and PhD students in the course of 10 days. It was presented to government at an event on 14 June.

Among the group drafting the letter was a number of leading scientists from all over the country including the following from the University of Copenhagen: Heine Andersen, professor emeritus of sociology; Brian Arly Jacobsen, associate professor in the department of cross-cultural and regional studies, who is also chair of the university section of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM); Professor Ole Wæver, chair of the research policy committee of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters; and PhD student Maria Toft representing the PhD Association Network of Denmark (PAND).

Call for a commission

Among the letter’s demands is a call for a commission to be set up to investigate the poor state of research in Denmark against the background of unprecedented societal challenges.

“We are in a time when we need good ideas more than ever: we have a terrible and unjust war in Europe, an economic crisis knocking on the door and a climate crisis that is already taking place,” the letter states.

“Researchers are by definition idealists: people who are driven by their ideas and who love ideas for their inherent value. We know that one idea can change society for the better, and that everything we say and do both as individuals and society starts with an idea.

“Therefore, it is crucial to look at how we improve the conditions for research and the sites of ideas in Denmark. It is the only way we can avoid losing crucial time and room for manoeuvre in relation to the challenges we face.”

In their petition, the scientists say the commission should scrutinise three areas:

• An evaluation and revision of the Danish University Act;

• More basic funding for free research and more permanent appointments; and

• A general review of the incentive structures and funding of research.

“In a review of the freedom of research at Danish universities, a commission of inquiry should at least partly examine the freedom to choose one’s own research interests, and ensure academic freedom from, for example, external intervention such as direct political or business interference that restricts research areas and focus on evidence-based input in free academic discussions,” the petition states.

Freedom from fear

It also raises the need for freedom from fear regarding secure employment.

“Such a fear is a more indirect structural challenge supported by, for example, the University Act of 2003 and an increased precarisation of employment,” the letter states.

Toft, who is one of the initiators of the campaign, told University of Copenhagen magazine University Post the issue of fear and mistrust among academics was serious – not only for researchers but for society.

“It is in the world of research that the ideas for the big changes that we need are fostered, and we cannot exploit this potential if everyone is anxious and frightened. As it is now, the system is based on mistrust,” said Toft, who also initiated the #pleasedontstealmywork campaign earlier in the year to challenge research theft at Danish universities which is characterised in part by older researchers taking credit for work carried out by younger colleagues including PhD students.

Heine Andersen confirmed to University World News that anxiety was pervasive among academics.

“Even among reputable scientists, there is layoff anxiety, and for good reason, due to several rounds of layoffs. And then you sit back and think ‘why did he and she get fired’, and then you remember that the person was critical of the management. It doesn’t have to be true, but just the fact that you think this means that you are cautious about going against management decisions,” he said.

Criticisms of University Act of 2003

Top-down management in universities is another source of unhappiness among the petitioners and one that was raised in October 2021 in the context of a critique of the Danish University Act of 2003 in a white paper distributed by the Research Policy Committee of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.

Committee chairman, Professor of Political Science Ole Wæver, who was a key speaker at the 14 June event, said then that Danish research would suffer irreparable damage if politicians did not stop the “extreme top-down management” of universities that had been facilitated through the revised Danish University Act of 2003.

According to researchers behind the petition, the Danish University Act has failed miserably.

Heine Andersen told University World News the act had allowed for the development of a notable arrogance among management.

“It is an entirely foreseeable consequence of the Danish University Act that there is far greater distance between management and staff. And management surrounds itself increasingly with sycophants, so they are hardly ever confronted with the many problems that researchers face.”

However, not everyone blames the legislation.

Hanne Leth Andersen, rector of Roskilde University and chair of the education committee at Universities Denmark, told University World News universities around the world were facing political pressure to deliver tangible results and economic growth through their education and research and this included pressure on researchers as to their “choice of research area and method”.

According to Hanne Leth Andersen, the overall purpose of universities over the past 30 years had evolved as well as their responsibilities and the nature of collaboration with society.

“Even as workplaces, universities have changed massively to take on much more responsibilities and meet researchers’ expectations.

“According to research in higher education, there is a tendency towards a prioritisation of economic and political purposes, while social and moral purposes become less evident. It is a common responsibility of rectors, deans and researchers to deal with this, and I do not believe that the University Act from 2003 is the reason for the challenges we face as institutions,” she said.

Increased dialogue

Hanne Leth Andersen said it was necessary to “increase the internal dialogue about the actual obstacles and barriers and to be aware of the external constraints”.

And with the meeting scheduled for 22 August, perhaps that is about to happen.

Heine Andersen said the petition had produced “something good” in the form of the meeting with Petersen and the party chairs.

“We look upon this as an opening compared to former negative reactions and rejections,” he said.

Professor Susan Wright, professor of educational anthropology at the Danish school of education at Aarhus University and director of the Centre for Higher Education Futures, agreed.

“The political interest aroused by the petition and the agreement to hold a meeting on 22 August with the minister and party spokespeople constitute an important breakthrough,” she said.

“Much has been written about the problems affecting academic freedom in Danish universities and a series of seminars by the higher education policy and practice section of the Danish Network for Educational Development in Higher Education and a major conference by the Centre for Higher Education Futures held at the Royal Danish Academy in December 2021 have amassed rich data on the range of problems.

“The three key issues identified by the petition prevent universities and academic staff from fully mobilising their resources to address the major problems facing society today. It is certainly time to create conditions for academic freedom in Denmark and a review and revision of the 2003 university law is long overdue.”