Can the Danish research ‘miracle’ be resuscitated?
In 2012 Denmark’s rise to the top echelons of the global research impact rankings was described as the ‘Danish miracle’. But today, academics are concerned that the quality of Denmark’s research output is in decline – as reflected in a drop in the number of highly cited research papers emanating from the country’s knowledge producers.
“From being in an exclusive group of the most cited research nations in the world, Denmark is today positioned in a larger group of countries with seemingly converging impact levels. Denmark’s impact level is still in the high end of this group, but it is declining, whereas other countries’ levels have increased,” according to Aarhus University academics Jesper Wiborg Schneider and Maria-Theresa Norn.
In a study published in March 2023 and discussed in an op-ed published in the June issue of the Norwegian journal Forskningspolitikk, Schneider and Norn flag the absence of younger researchers among the country’s highly cited researchers.
“It [this absence] has to be investigated more deeply but is also worth noticing that – of the countries examined in our study – Denmark has seen the least renewal in the group of researchers that produced highly cited articles from the period 2009-11 to 2018-20. Put differently, the people who were central in driving research impact 10 years ago are more likely to drive impact today as well, for Denmark as for other countries”.
University World News approached stakeholders in Danish research and higher education to canvas their views on the issue.
Mats Benner, a co-author with Gunnar Öquist of the 2012 report analysing bibliometric data on research impact and citation from 39 countries that helped to coin the phrase ‘Danish miracle’, told University World News that Denmark showed that “it was possible to rise from mediocracy to prominence with a concerted approach to quality – in funding, leadership and recruitment.
“Easy come, easy go... Just when things looked really bright Denmark opted for policy cornucopia in all directions … There is a lesson here for small research systems with global ambitions: set long-term goals and stick to them,” he said.
When they published their paper in 2012, Benner and Öquist attributed the phenomenal increase in citation impact and in the proportion of highly cited papers over the past two decades to the increased research resources, including the Globalisation Fund 2007-2012 which earmarked 0.5% of the GNP – an amount which accumulated to DKK40 billion (US$5.83 billion) – to research, as well as reforms to doctoral education, the university sector and the research funding system.
The end of the miracle
However, in an article published by Forskningspolitikk on 7 June entitled “You were human after all”, Benner announced the end of the miracle and attributed part of the country’s decline to “non-optimal university governance” by the top leaders of Danish universities who have not concentrated resources towards “younger people with real potential and the right appointments.
“Politics has also become increasingly fragmented and not at all equally attuned to international visibility. Rather, it focuses on national affairs, and on various, more or less well-founded, reorganisation processes for universities and institutions for research funding,” Benner writes.
Upon publication of the report by Schneider and Norn, the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Villum Fonden – both of which had jointly commissioned the report – sent out a press release in which they suggested the report can be used to discuss research strategies and priorities.
“For many years we have regarded Danish research as being among the best in the world. However, the researchers behind this study have found that the scientific impact of Danish research has been on the decline for a number of years.
“Their report provides solid data that can be used to discuss research strategy and priorities in light, of course, of societal needs and the broader societal impact of the research,” said Thomas Bjørnholm, executive chief scientific officer at Villum Fonden.
If, as Benner argues, Danish research is labouring under a shortage of young researchers, how does one explain the success of the country’s universities in attracting young researchers from the European Union to Danish host institutions? For example, as reported last year by University World News, the results of the 2018 application round for the Individual Fellowships (IF) under the mobility programme Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions show that Danish institutions performed best among the European grant recipients.
According to David Budtz Pedersen, professor of science communication and impact studies at Aalborg University, the situation is the product of a multifactorial development.
“Denmark has increased co-authorships with other leading nations, the difference in citation impact between countries is declining due to collaboration, and obviously China has caught up since the 2012 study. This has made the top more competitive,” he said.
“Any attempt to read the new study in terms of success or failure of specific policies is speculation. But I think the authors and Benner are right in pointing out the Danish research sector is challenged. Especially, more focus should be devoted to bringing in young talents and transitioning leadership to new generations.”
Pedersen said the report shows that frontier research and breakthroughs are what drives citation impact.
“I think Danish science policymakers should do more to stimulate transformative research and focus more on novelty than quantity. We are publishing too many insignificant papers. Instead, talents should focus on finding the new ‘wild ideas’ that can change their research field and create collaboration and impact.
“We need a new national research strategy focused on stimulating next-generation transformative research,” he said.
Pedersen also said that it was important to remember that the number of PhDs has increased significantly in the period between the two reports.
“Many PhD dissertations today are published as papers. They don’t have significant citations, and they might contribute to lowering the average impact. Nothing is wrong with PhDs publishing papers. But you cannot expect a high increase in the research population to display the same success as former smaller ‘elites’,” Pedersen said.
Frede Blaabjerg, a professor in the department of energy technology at Aalborg University and chairman of the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFir), told University World News in April 2023 that “Denmark had an international outlook in research and innovation, including being able to attract top talent, in its DNA”.
Commenting on the new study, Blaabjerg said it would be a “wake-up call” for politicians, policy advisors and the universities in general.
“The sector is constantly seeing reforms, which need to be implemented,” he said.
“Still, Denmark is on a high level. China has been growing significantly which influences the global landscape significantly. Research has become much more collaborative between nations (which I think is good). However, we do not have numbers on whether the young generation are staying here or going to other countries, which could be interesting to know before making a conclusion.
“I can also see that certain discilines have been declining more than others – there could be some explanations in some of the fields due to high working pressure in specific sectors beyond doing research,” he said.
Blaabjerg said some of the issues to be examined could include whether the PhD programme is too short at three years and whether the conditions for young researchers at universities are attractive enough to keep them from seeking employment in industry.
Another issue to examine was “the balance between basic money versus competitive money – so research money for the faculties at the universities is ensured – which in the end of course depends on the university leadership …” he said.
Professor Jens Oddershede, a former chair of DFiR, told University World News that it was “unfortunate” but “not unexpected” to see a decline in the Danish research performance.
In 2016 Oddershede told University World News, in his capacity as DFiR chair, that he was concerned about a lack of investment in the middle layer of the academic career ladder which included post-doctoral students, junior academics and talent recruitment programmes.
In 2017 he told University World News that DFiR had “great expectations” of the government’s new research and innovation strategy and he was hopeful it would address the time bomb 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 then.
When asked for comment this week, Oddershede agreed that Danish universities were going through a “period of hardship” which “started some years ago with educational cutbacks and now is escalating with the government proposal of cutting one year of the university study programmes for a large fraction of the students”.
He said the financing of universities in practice is a “common pot financing” of research and education that had led to cuts to university employee numbers, including tenured staff.
“That will inevitably have a negative effect on the research performance of the universities, the lack of funds to recruit new, young faculties being one of them,” he said.
“An increased focus on strategic and mission-oriented research dictated by the need to address climate and sustainability issues has also put pressure on research with high citation impact.
“So – unfortunately – it is not unexpected that we see a decline in the Danish research performance. All over the world we are seeing that too many reforms and changes in the university has a negative effect on their research performance. That was true in 2016 and that is still true”.
Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, former rector of the University of Oslo and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and now secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, told University World News it was premature to dismiss the ‘Danish miracle’.
“I think it is too early to dismiss the ‘Danish miracle’. With adequate political support it might be kept alive. It is not too late. As I see it, Denmark continues to punch above its weight when it comes to scientific excellence and impact.
“Obviously, there is increased competition from other nations, and we all know that many countries – in the Far East, not least – have ramped up their investments in research and higher education. We must take note: there is no time for complacency. Europe – and the Nordic countries specifically – must uphold and strengthen funding of research and innovation to remain in the top tier,” said Ottersen.
Stability and continuity
“As a possible explanation of what appears to be a waning research impact of Danish research, I will highlight one factor that is essential for scientific excellence and that is often (and sadly) overlooked by policy-makers: stability and continuity,” he said.
“Excellent science is long term and thrives and prospers only when investments are stable and foreseeable and not subject to political whims. Danish universities have not escaped political interference and the new data should serve as an eye-opener for political decision makers: excellent science is typically ‘slow science’, implying that it is dependent on long-term and stable support and extremely sensitive to political twists and turns that drain energy from scientists and administrators alike. Let universities develop and implement their own strategies and they will continue to perform.”
Rune Busk Damgaard, associate professor at the Technical University of Denmark, said on behalf of the Danish Young Academy that the shift in funding policy towards larger grants that are mission or goal driven favour established research leaders, pushing young talent to the periphery in university strategies.
“The consequence is that recruitment of young talent is less of a priority, as it is more feasible to focus recruitment efforts towards established senior researchers within politically prioritised topics.”
Damgaard said research institutions were subject to “continuously changing demands and reforms” from the government.
“This drains resources at the universities, away from research, and makes strategic planning and recruitment very difficult.
The result is that Denmark is less attractive for young talent for building their research groups as research has become an even more precarious career path. Ultimately, Denmark is potentially losing new avenues of research as truly novel and innovative research ideas are likely to find other pastures,” he said.