Optimism over minister’s inclusive style in research talks

Academics behind a campaign pushing for changes to research conditions in Denmark are optimistic that the recent talks with Minister of Higher Education and Science Jesper Petersen and other political leaders signal a victory for ordinary researchers who have thus far been shut out of major decisions regarding the country’s national research framework.

Maria Toft, who represented the PhD Association Network of Denmark (PAND) at a meeting with the minister and other party leaders on 22 August, and who is a key figure in the campaign known as ‘Set Research Free’, described herself as being “predominantly positive” after the meeting.

“He [the minister] was sympathetic to our views and seemed ready to take them into account in a new way,” she said.

Toft said until now most decisions have been made on a basis of speaking with university managers and rectorates.

“However, the management, of course, has specific interests, and these do not necessarily represent the broader environment at the universities and the experience of most researchers,” Toft said.

“Therefore, the minister, together with the different party spokespeople, has opened the door to the views of researchers from all levels and [will] take our suggestions and concerns seriously.”

Sharing his impressions of the meeting, Professor Ole Wæver, chair of the research policy committee of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, told University Post that he and the other academic representatives, including Toft, had encountered a responsiveness to the issues from the minister they had not experienced for a long time.

“This is a great leap forward. Only one year ago you would feel like a spoiled idiot if you raised questions about the research conditions in Denmark,” he said.

Key demands of the campaign

The meeting followed the publication by the campaign of the so-called ‘Freedom Letter’ addressed to Petersen and the heads of all political parties. Endorsed by more than 2,000 signatories, the letter prompted the minister to invite key academics involved in the campaign to meet with him and his counterparts in parliament on 22 August 2022.

Among three key demands of the ‘Set Research Free’ campaign is a full evaluation of the 2003 Danish University Act to arrest the “secrecy and culture of fear that has evolved in an almost militarised management structure”.

The other two key demands of the campaign are: more basic funding for free research; and a general review of the incentive structures for research, credit-transfer targets and funding.

Toft said the University Act of 2003, which had created “one of the most centralised, top-down management systems in the world”, was to be re-evaluated next year.

However, it was reported the minister had opted for an investigation into the effects of the 2003 law to be conducted by the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFir) rather than a parliamentary committee.

“… There are some processes already concerning various themes related to ‘freedom of research’ that he said was important to consider before he could promise or offer any commission to investigate all areas mentioned in our letter,” said Toft. “So, he was not supportive of making a big commission – however, he did not reject the idea either.”

Researcher exploitation

Toft, who is also behind the #PleaseDontStealMyWork initiative highlighting the prevalence of exploitation of young scientists’ research by their supervisors, said the campaign against research theft had “made a big impression” on the minister and politicians.

The initiative had already garnered a lot of public attention following the publication by Science of 120 comments from early career researchers concerning the exploitation of their work at the hands of their supervisors.

“There was a genuine concern about the working environment of younger researchers and the minister offered to implement a greater investigation about research theft and the extent of it,” said Toft.

“I … said that it was important to include all researchers – also senior academics – in such an investigation and to look at the conditions of doing research (time, money and the way in which the success of research is measured) that have created structural incentives that supports this kind of (silent) behaviour.

“Otherwise, it would only result in a treatment of symptoms rather than going to the root of the trouble,” Toft said.

Toft said the upcoming general election meant that all politicians and political processes are “a bit on standby” although some parties had said they were keen to place the campaign’s suggestions on the negotiation table after the elections and work on dispensing with “creative accountancy” and actually increase the proportion of research funding to 1% of GDP.

Views on the University Act

Camilla Gregersen, president of the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (with 43,000 members) and deputy president of the Danish Confederation of Professional Associations (with 464,000 members), told University World News that while a formal commission to review the University Act did not come out of the meeting, “the minister was not averse to it either”.

She said there was still a need for a comprehensive review of the law with a particular focus on the “single-string management structure, which negatively affects academic freedom”.

The Council of Europe’s recommendations regarding academic freedom include, among other things, the need for universities to be characterised by freedom of expression, thinking, learning, research, participation and academic freedom in general, as well as institutional autonomy and co-determination, she said. “The University Act does not create the optimal conditions for academic freedom today.”

However, not everyone believes the act is harmful. Mads Eriksen Storm, head of education and research policy at the Danish Chamber of Commerce, described the 2003 law as a “great step forward”.

“I don’t think the politicians would have agreed on the 1% goal for public research under the old university rule … The universities are more professionally ruled today, and the Danish universities are world class.”