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Departments forced to stop researchers applying for external funding

Grants — A number of UCPH departments are under so much financial pressure that they have stopped their researchers from applying for funding unless the grant giver covers overheads. Staff representative says that researchers are frustrated

Several departments at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) have got to the point where they are now stopping researchers from applying for more grant money from foundations.

At the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences (PLEN) department head Svend Christensen has already slammed the brakes and now limits researchers from getting grants from private donations (external funding) for their research.

“We are very close to having to say no to more external funding, and I have already stopped researchers applying for more money without also getting overhead. I have to do this, as we cannot do any more co-financing.”

Does not pay all costs

The absurd situation is due to private foundations not being able to pay the overhead costs of doing research projects, or only to a limited extent.

I would myself be extremely upset if I was told by my department head that I may no longer apply for money

Thomas Vils Pedersen, joint staff representative

The costs include research management (including supervision of PhD students), depreciation and maintenance of equipment, use of support functions, rent, electricity, heating, cleaning, administration, IT, maintenance, etc.

These costs are to be paid by the university, and they are draining the so-called free basic funds that universities are granted from the national budget. These are the funds that they should have used for their own strategic research initiatives.

Some foundations also require that universities contribute with co-financing, if they are to be considered for a grant.

Requires culture change

Thomas Vils Pedersen, associate professor and staff representative for academic staff at UCPH, believes that the situation requires a huge culture change among researchers, and a more critical approach to applying for research funding.

“We still think of external funding as the cherry on top of the cake. But today it accounts for a large part of the university’s finances. This is an impossible situation, as the researchers need the resources to continue their projects and build up their groups. But on the other hand, we also see that the basic funding gets drained off. So we need to find a balance,” he says.

Thomas Vils Pedersen adds that he understands why researchers are frustrated with the situation.

“I would myself be extremely upset if I was told by my department head that I may no longer apply for money. This is an understandable response. So we need to have a better understanding of what it costs the department financially if you receive funds without somehow getting overhead or otherwise get your expenses covered,” says the staff representative.

Has to sift through applications

At the Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), where external funding accounts for approximately 50 per cent, things have got so out of hand that management now rejects grants which researchers have already had approved.

UCPH income (2017)

Education: DKK 2.13 billion

Public basic grants for research: DKK 2.92 billion

External funding: DKK 2.91 billion

Of which:
Danish public sector: DKK 1.00 billion
Danish private sector: DKK 1.06 billion
EU: DKK 303 million
Other international: DKK 129 million

Revenues: DKK 8.6 billion

“But we stop and systematically sort the applications – in collaboration with our researchers. We do this because the financing is problematic due to low, or even non-coverage, of indirect costs, restrictive uses, or because of co-funding requirements. Every decision is context specific and balances the academic perspective with the financial perspective,” writes department head Bo Jellesmark Thorsen.

In a feature article in Berlingske in August 2017 he described how the situation had got serious for some of Denmark’s best, and most successful, research environments. There are few resources to stabilise talented research groups and to ensure a breadth in the research.

Bo Jellesmark Thorsen believes that the best solution to the problem is that the country’s rectors and the foundations’ management teams agree on a set of rules. These rules should ensure that foundations take on a larger portion of indirect costs and at the same time limit their requirements for co-financing.

The alternative is that politicians intervene and start regulating the foundations’ activities in more detail, he suggests.

Close to the limit

Claus Beier, head of department at the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management, says that they only go for grants which they perceive as being of strategic importance or that fit well with other activities at the department.

He adds that around 40 per cent of revenues come from external funding, but that the Danish government’s continued year-on-year two per cent cutbacks are helping to move the threshold downwards in terms of the size of this external funding share.

“We have certainly reached the limit (or passed the limit) in relation to taking home external funding without overheads, without financing of permanent staff and without coverage of spillover costs,” writes Claus Beier.

There will be cases where we have to say that this is an exciting project, but the university has to say no thanks. We cannot afford to co-finance it
Jesper Olesen, University Director, UCPH

At the Department of Biology, where external activities take up 50-60 per cent, department head Niels Kroer says that they are also approaching the threshold where they have to say no to funding.

“We still have a small financial buffer, so we can attract external funding, but we are close to the limit. I foresee, as a consequence, that the number of permanent positions will remain the same. New positions will only be advertised as we get the necessary financial leeway. This could be through agreements on retirement, or a transition to emeritus positions,” he writes.

Costs Faculty of Science DKK 590 million

A memo by the Faculty of Science at UCPH shows that external grants account for a substantial part of the faculty’s basic funding.

The Faculty of Science received in 2017 approximately DKK 1.1 billion in external research funding. From this, at total of DKK 200 million was paid out to cover overhead costs

But the DKK 200 million is far from enough. The memo shows that the Faculty of Science has to find approximately DKK 590 million kroner every year to cover the indirect costs of the externally funded research projects. This includes expenses for rent and operation of buildings, heating and electricity, cleaning, financial and personnel management and IT

UCPH needs to get better

Jesper Olesen, University Director at UCPH does not believe there needs to be a fixed limit on how much external funding the university can handle.

The five largest private contributors to UCPH

The Novo Nordisk Foundation DKK 3,513.7 million

The Lundbeck Foundation: DKK 705.6 million

The Villum Foundation DKK 660.5 million

The Carlsberg Foundation: DKK 277.3 million

Nordea Foundation DKK 243.6 million

The list of major contributors is based on all ongoing projects (about 5,100 in 2017) and includes, in this way, both money that has been allocated several years ago and partly spent, and funds that have not yet been disbursed.

He says that the department’s management has to assess from an academic viewpoint whether the grant fits into their strategy in connection with each research project. If it is within an area that is already their focus, or within a theme that the department already conducts research, then the full coverage of costs may not be needed.

“There will be cases where we have to say that this is an exciting project, but the university has to say no thanks. We cannot afford to co-finance it,” says Jesper Olesen.

He adds that it is necessary to strike a balance between basic funds and external funding. There is a limit to how much UCPH can contribute in term of co-financing more external research, but he points out that this also depends on the financial situation of the individual departments.

“I see a large potential in us getting better at documenting the actual costs associated with research. This includes helping researchers write down all the expenses on their applications for funding,” the university director says.

He points out that the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) has around 50 per cent externally financed research, while the number is around 35 per cent at UCPH. There is, in other words, room for improvement.

New budget model would help

Jesper Olesen adds that management has appointed a working group that is responsible for calculating the precise overhead on the research. He says that they are building on work that has already been carried out at the Faculty of Science.

According to the university director, management is also working on changing the UCPH budget model – that is, the way you distribute the funding and expenses internally at the university.

As it is today, external funding goes directly to the different faculties and, ultimately, to the individual researcher. But half of the overhead for things like rent and operations is paid via the UCPH central fund.

Management wants to channel overhead income directly to where the expenses are incurred, so external projects to a greater extent have their actual costs covered.

Discussing problems in forum

Jesper Olesen says that UCPH is also taking part in work at a new Forum for Research Financing which was appointed by the former Minister of Science Søren Pind before he chose to withdraw from politics.

The forum consists of the rectors of the universities, the chairmen of the three large public research foundations, and one member from the Carlsberg Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Velux Foundation, and the Villum Foundation respectively.

According to its mandate, members are to discuss the challenges associated with indirect costs on externally funded research projects.

Foundation: 15 per cent is reasonable

The Villum Foundation is one of the few private Danish foundations, which provides funding for what they call “indirect project costs”.

According to the foundation’s research director, Thomas Bjørnholm, they have selected to provide a fixed 15 per cent for this purpose, as they are aware that with increased research activity there are indirect costs.

“We believe that 15 per cent is a reasonable level for the research we support, and we have also been in dialogue with the universities. We are aware that there may be differences between research disciplines, but the model should be easy to use for our grant recipients,” he writes.

Thomas Bjørnholm adds that it is important that the universities, the ministries, and the foundations gain a common understanding, and that they work in close cooperation towards their common purpose – creating excellent research in Denmark. But it is up to the individual foundations how they choose to spend their money.

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