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Denmark: An embarrassment in terms of freedom of research?

Freedom of research is challenged in Denmark, writes sociology professor emeritus Heine Andersen. Here he lists nine examples.

In 2007 and 2017, the British researcher Terence Karran published studies that compared the levels of academic freedom in the EU countries. In both years Denmark was close to the bottom of the ranking. The main reasons were the absence of collegial autonomy, a high dependence on external funding, and weak employment security (absence of tenure).

Has anything happened since then? Yes a little, but not clearly for the better, actually the contrary. The trends have shown that the problems are actually large, real, and that things are not getting any better.

More attention is being been paid to the problems. According to Danish media tracker Infomedia, the phrase »freedom of research« was mentioned in 207 articles in 2011, 185 in 2016 and 833 in 2021.

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More attention does not necessarily have to be a good thing. It can also indicate the opposite. The attacks from Danish politicians Henrik Dahl and Morten Messerschmidt on selected research fields and even on named researchers from the parliamentary rostrum in 2021, with displays of hostility to research and anti enlightenment appeals for tougher top-down management, were a direct attack on academic freedoms.

One positive benefit was probably that it had the universities’ rectors take a stand in the media. They have otherwise been invisible. The turning point in interest came earlier. It can quite accurately be timed to 2016, activated by the scandal of what has been dubbed ‘manure-gate’ at Aarhus University, which led to a minister losing her seat (Eva Kjer Hansen). It was in this context that I uncovered the so-called ‘double gag clauses’, which several hundred researchers had been forced to comply with in at least five universities for at least ten years. The authorities had, without the otherwise powerful university managements taking a stand against them, violated not only paragraph 2 of the Danish University Act on freedom of research, but also the Danish Public Administration Act, paragraph 27 (5). A crass assault on academic freedom, for which no one has ever subsequently been given responsibility.

Nine serious examples

The gag clauses were changed. But new, and serious, examples of the poor state of academic freedom have emerged in the meantime. Here is a selection:

—  Three researchers in educational philosophy at Aalborg University were dismissed on the grounds that their research was not »relevant«. In the appeal case, the supervisory authority ruled that it was the Head of Department’s sole prerogative to determine relevance. After widespread protests, the dismissals were withdrawn.

—  A professor of economics at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU) had a report, in which he criticised his colleagues’ results, seized by the department head. After part of the report was published in a scientific journal, and a complaint to the Ombudsman, the report was subsequently released.

—  A professor in acoustics at Aarhus University demonstrated discomfort from low frequency noise from large wind turbines. A director from the wind turbine industry called the professor’s rector and urged him to have him fired. The professor was fired, and circumstantial evidence suggests that the formal justification was a pretence, and that pressure from the wind turbine industry was actually behind the dismissal.

–  A professor of geophysics at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) was dismissed on the grounds that 1) he had advised a postdoc that they may express criticism of management (in a workplace assessment study), and 2) that he had used a private email in work-related communication. The decision was overruled in a labour arbitration court. He was not re-hired, but the illegal dismissal had no consequences for the responsible dean. The case cost UCPH millions in compensation and remuneration to lawyers and accountants.

–  A project at UCPH on regulating agriculture had a grant from SEGES, a consultancy firm under the lobby group Danish Agriculture & Food Council. The head of department had signed a contract with the following text: »The supplier’s employees must behave loyally and solely uphold the interests of SEGES in relation to the scope and content of the agreement«. The university was reprimanded by the supervisory authority for not living up to the requirements of the University Act on safeguarding freedom of research and scientific ethics.

–  The beef scandal: »It was presented as independent research, but the agriculture lobby was given permission to co-write it. And when the scandal started to roll, Aarhus University withheld the truth« (Danish newspaper Information 30 November 2019).

–  Studies from Aalborg University and the trade union DM have revealed that around one sixth of all researchers say that they have been subjected to pressure in their release of results – either to change, to postpone, or to refrain from publishing completely.

–  Researchers who work with religion and faith, gender equality, gender, sexuality, refugees, as well as integration and migration, are at particularly high risk of receiving threats or hung out to dry on social media. Many of them withdraw from media outreach.

–  »The University of Copenhagen criticised for ‘clear failures’ in the case of parasites in meat. Leaves supervisory authority to employees at the Danish Agriculture & Food Council. A large-scale research project on parasites in Danish pork ended as accusations of questionable research, breach of contract, and manipulation of data. Critics accuse the Danish agricultural lobby of a cover-up of the problem. ….. Now the case, which has cost a top Danish researcher their job, has ended up with the Danish parliamentary ombudsman« (Danish newspaper Berlingske 8 February 2022).

Champagne corks popping

This is just a selection. A serious problem in this context is that in Denmark, unlike in more enlightened countries like Norway, there are no robust studies of the scope and causes of the problems. Several of the serious cases mentioned above have not been followed up by more thorough studies that could identify responsibilities and ways of preventing repetition. However, it is more serious that these cases are only the tip of the iceberg. Further down, we find limitations in the form of self-censorship, a culture of secrecy, an anxiety about layoffs that obstructs all the independence, boldness, and creativity, that is to create the research results of the future.

Behind this we find the deeper structural causal factors.

First: The growth of the money regime, which means more dependency and a lack of independence. External funding is close to 50 per cent, but it is worse because the 50 per cent does not cover the full costs, so universities have to use their [government-subsidy, ed.] basic funding (or funds for teaching?) to be able to afford mild gifts from foundations and other external patrons. While the billions of kroner roll into large, glittering centres, it is necessary at the same time to dismiss researchers and close departments in other areas.

A few years ago, Søren Pind set up a financing forum to solve the problem. Nothing has happened.

A consequence of the financial structure and its instability is a huge increase in the number of precarious appointments and repeated rounds of layoffs.

Secondly: The growth of the power regime, a lack of collegial self-governance, the lack of checks and balances, and the hollowing out of the public sphere of academia.

Things get serious if the funding regime and the power regime enter into symbiosis, and there are strong signs that this is happening. Read what two Dutch researchers wrote in an article in the prestigious journal Minerva in 2015 The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University.

»The university has been occupied – not by students demanding a say (as in the 1960s), but this time by the many-headed Wolf of management. The Wolf has colonised academia with a mercenary army of professional administrators, armed with spreadsheets, output indicators and audit procedures, loudly accompanied by the Efficiency and Excellence March … «

The wolf lets the champagne corks pop for each extra point on the rankings, while the flock of sheep (the researchers) desperately try to raise awareness about the ever more absurd conditions. Can you, dear reader, recognise this description?

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