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Research power — The Novo Nordisk Foundation has put billions into the University of Copenhagen. Now one of the top people from the foundation’s company Novo Nordisk has been made the new chairman of the University’s board. What is the significance of the marriage between the university and the pharmaceutical industry?
Follow the money sounds like good advice. And Novo Nordisk has apparently followed it when one of their executives – Executive Vice President for Research and Development
The money comes from the company itself. It comes from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which (via Novo A/S) owns a controlling majority shareholding in Novo Nordisk and its sister company Novozymes. Novo Nordisk is the largest pharmaceutical company in Denmark and the country’s most valuable company.
Just within the last 10 years, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has spent almost DKK 2.5bn on setting up
The close connection between the university and the company is striking, but there are at least two different interpretations of what it means for the country’s largest university.
In one version, Novo Nordisk, through its economic strength and experience as a research-based company, can guarantee the university’s autonomy and development. It can shield the university from politicians’ short-termist solutions and their desire for detailed regulation.
In the second version, it is in fact a merger between UCPH and the Novo-family: the privatization of research in Denmark, as the former member of the UCPH board Leif Søndergaard called it. He’s not the only one who sees danger signs.
“It always means trouble when you go to bed with an elephant,” says Allan Randrup Thomsen, professor, doctor and member of the central staff co-operation committee at UCPH.
Randrup Thomsen says that his attitude towards the Novo Nordisk Foundation is ambivalent, partly because he is “reluctant to bite the hand that feeds me,” partly because Novo – not least through the statements of Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen – is a large and ardent supporter of research in Denmark.
“That said, Novo’s dominance at UCPH is also a problem. The Novo Nordisk Foundation centres are very dominant and, when it comes to the competition for funding, they are hard to compete with,” he says.
“Even our own faculty interests seem, to some extent, to follow Novo’s priorities. And with such a dominant partner this is not without problems. I think that our situation to a certain extent is comparable to Finland’s relationship with Russia. Finland is an independent country, but it always needs to take Russia into account.”
The relationship between the University of Copenhagen and the country’s
Heine Andersen, professor emeritus of sociology and an active debater in the area of research policy, notes the fact that Novo Nordisk is an exceptional partner with the universities – simply by virtue of its size.
“There is loads of collaboration with industries, agriculture and business, but rarely with such strong partners,” says Heine Andersen.
“It is clear that this has given rise to speculation among many people – but it is rare that you encounter it in the form of concerns these days. In most places, politicians and university leaders applaud it, and many researchers are, of course, happy for the money. This is really disturbing.”
"With Krogsgaard, UCPH gets a chairman of the board that has the right professional attitude to running higher education and research. And he can do nothing on his own”
Thomas Vils Pedersen, associate professor and representative for the academic staff at UCPH, says that the main problem with large external funders is that they can get the university to opt out of strategic initiatives that it would have liked.
“It applies to all the places where UCPH gets research grants that do not cover all the costs of the research. This means that the university effectively co-finances everything, and this is fine if this is inside a field that you already want to focus on.”
“The individual managements of faculties or departments need to better assess whether they should co-finance the privately funded projects and thereby at the same time opt out of other projects. Otherwise, this is an attack on academic freedom.”
“There are good examples,” says Thomas Vils Pedersen, “but you have to be aware of this choice.”
Vils Pedersen does not mention any examples of Novo money doing any harm to the freedom of research, but one possible example would be the story that the Danish newspaper Information published in 2010 on the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s DKK 885 million metabolic research center donation. The newspaper revealed then that the metabolism center was established because the Novo Nordisk Foundation thought it would be a good idea – not because the UCPH had any plans for a center.
The Foundation’s director Birgitte Nauntofte had, according to the newspaper Information, contacted her old boss at UCPH, the dean Ulla Wewer, and suggested that UCPH apply for funding for a center.
It was clear from the newspaper Information’s coverage that the Novo Nordisk Foundation retained some control over the use of their money at UCPH. Nauntofte and Wewer made up the committee, “that should approve the Center’s overall strategy, management and development, and approve the budget.” If Wewer was to leave the committee, the Foundation had to approve her successor.
It was in this context that the former staff representative Leif Søndergaard (who has also been a member of the UCPH Board) talked of the privatization of public research in Denmark.
According to the sceptics, it can also be a problem that the large research centers represent a kind of highway for young researchers that automatically directs them in the scientific direction that the funders want.
Exchange of personnel between UCPH and Novo
Novo Nordisk and the foundation are not only associated with UCPH through donations. It also takes place through the exchange of staff. A new report from the The Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy states that Novo Nordisk hires 20 per cent of its employees from the academic world (in addition to the 18 per cent they hire directly). But more importantly: 9 per cent of Novo’s resignations are because the person got a job in the university world.
“You should ensure that a certain amount PhD scholarships are free grants, so that the best minds can get the chance to develop their own ideas,” says staff representative Thomas Vils Pedersen.
Thomas Vils Pedersen also says that he has no reason for believing that the Board will interfere in specific research programmes in the faculties. But he says that it is of course important that members do not have a conflict of interest – in particular the chairman.
“It is a point that should be noticed,” he says. “But specifically Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen has sent some good signals as an advocate for independent research.”
Krogsgaard Thomsen has in several featured comments in recent years argued that Denmark should invest more in research – especially in the life sciences – and that it should raise the quality of its PhD programmes and recruit more internationally.
“Whether you can be honestly impartial is something for a psychological evaluation,” says Johan Tufte-Kristensen, who is putting his final touches on a PhD thesis on incapacity standards.
“Some people would say that you can be dispassionate. Others will not. But there is hardly any doubt that an executive vice president at Novo Nordisk will normally be able to manage university funds.”
“What you could consider is whether the connection between the Novo Nordisk Foundation’s investments and the chairman’s job can in certain situations make the outside world frown upon it. It is partly to prevent the outside world from looking askance at this, that we have disqualification rules in a number of areas.”
“There is nothing in law from preventing the same person being the chairman of UCPH and executive vice director of Novo Nordisk, so long as he does not participate in the consideration of issues related to Novo Nordisk.”
“In corporate legal terms there is a firewall between the Foundation and the company, but the talk of a firewall does not hold in the sense of disqualification. The two actors are of course inextricably linked due to the Foundation’s ownership of Novo Nordisk. You can ask yourself whether Novo Nordisk does not also have an interest in the Foundation’s operations.”
“If the chairman deals with specific questions related to the Novo Nordisk Foundation projects, it will be the cause of concern in the outside world. If the alignment of interests between the chairman and the foundation is big enough, it may even be contrary to the disqualification rules in the Danish Law on Public Administration and the Board’s own rules of procedure. But if he withdraws from the examination of specific questions, there should be no problem.”
"It always means trouble when you go to bed with an elephant”
The Novo and UCPH marriage is a part of a general development where universities and the business sector, with the blessing of politicians and rectors, approach each other. The UCPH management is deeply committed to making the science campus areas the central neighborhoods in a Copenhagen science city, where the idea is that many companies can move in and absorb graduates and PhDs from the University.
“There is alot going on. They want to mix up the private and public sector. Those from outside the university are expected to contribute with something different or new,” says Carsten Greve, a professor of public governance and management at CBS.
In this narrative, it is natural that the University and Novo join forces. Maybe Krogsgaard Thomsens chairmanship can even be seen as a strengthening of the university’s autonomy. The scientific community can, in an alliance with the captains of industry, become strong enough to take on the civil servants at the ministry when they, and their political bosses, want to regulate academia.
In fact, the appointment of Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen happened in a way where UCPH stood up to government in Christiansborg.
The UCPH Board’s decision to choose Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen as chairman was taken in urgency in March after the government announced that it would henceforth take over control of who should lead the country’s universities (in particular at the expense of the universities’ own staff and students).
The government bill is to be adopted as law on 1st July, and UCPH decided – in a kind of counter-coup against the government – to push forward a change of chairman, which otherwise was scheduled to take place this autumn, so that the Minister of Higher Education and Research did not, this time, have a say in who sits at the end of the table in the University’s boardroom.
Krogsgaard Thomsen’s rapid entry does not mean that he does not know UCPH well. The Novo executive vice director has already served as a
The Novo Nordisk Foundation that owns Novo A/S (and therefore both Novo Nordisk and Novozymes), has in the last 10 years donated DKK 3.7 billion to set up four research centers and a national biobank. Three of the centers are located at UCPH.
2013: DKK 100m as a contribution to the establishment of a new Natural History Museum at UCPH.
2010-14: DKK 15m to a Center for Global Health.
2010 + 2015: DKK 585m to basic research unit in stem cell biology
2007-14: DKK 780m for protein research center
2010: DKK 885m or metabolism research center
Total: DKK 2,365m
In addition, awards such as the Novo Nordisk Prize (DKK 3m annually) and grants for research projects on application.
Professor emeritus Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen of the University of Aarhus is the grand old man of research in management and bureaucracy in Denmark. He is not frightened by the election of Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen.
“I see no major problems in it off hand,” he writes in an email.
“Of course there will be cases where Krogsgaard may have a conflict of interest. But, for the first, as university boards work, these will be few and far between, and for the second, there are rules for how to proceed in this case.”
He too takes note of the new chairman’s merits:
“With Krogsgaard, UCPH gets a chairman of the board that has the right professional attitude to running higher education and research. And he can do nothing on his own,” writes Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen.
The government wants, as mentioned above, to appoint board chairmen at universities and in this way gain more control over the sector.
But in an opinion piece in the Weekendavisen newspaper (10th March 2017) Grønnegård Christensen questions whether this kind of detailed management will serve the government’s purpose at all. It is in no way certain that board executives will stand to attention for the minister just because the government had a hand in appointing them:
‘[With] everything we know about a public organization, it is an illusion that the new ministerially appointed board chairmen will orient themselves towards the Minister rather than the university,” writes Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen in Weekendavisen.
If Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen is therefore primarily the university’s man in the role of chairman – and not the envoy of Novo – this corresponds very well with how board members at Danish universities perceive their own role.
This is according to Niels Ejersbo, senior researcher at KORA (the Danish Institute for Local and Regional Government Research), who together with Professor Carsten Greve, CBS, has done research on how the members of the university’s boards perceive their tasks.
“The literature describes several roles that a board can have. The members can devote themselves to supervising the daily management in accordance with a strategy, or they can see themselves more in a supportive role, assisting management with its work. But in addition, the board members can also see themselves as representatives of interests outside the university, as stakeholders. When we ask how they see themselves, they answer yes to the first two things, but they do not see themselves as stakeholder representatives.”
Ejersbo and Greve have also found that there is a strong consensus within the boards, and there is no sign of a stand-off between the members coming from the university and the majority that is taken in from outside.
“There was no evidence of a line of conflict between the two parties,” says Niels Ejersbo.
This also corresponds well with how the Board appears in public. There is rarely dissent in their decisions, and even the toughest student politician tends to calm down and play by the rules of consensus when he or she is first elected to the University’s governing body. If there are quarrels, they are typically kept confidential.
It will therefore, also in the coming years, be interesting to follow the cash flows. Not only those from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, but also UCPH’s own funds. Will they also overwhelmingly flow in the direction of
It has not been possible before the deadline to get an interview with Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen.