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Farewell interview — It is not the cash that determines the research at the University of Copenhagen, says Thomas Bjørnholm in a send-off interview with the University Post. He also has a message to young researchers and researching students: You need to be prepared to… leave.
Thomas Bjørnholm, prorector for research and innovation at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), is moving on.
Celebrated for his success in getting funding for nanotechnology, which he helped establish as a field for research in Denmark, he is now going to sprinkle money over Danish science as the new director for the Villum Foundation. He will be responsible for DKK 600 million a year.
But before this, Thomas Bjørnholm would like to talk about the state of research at Denmark’s largest university – both the freedom of research which is the core of scientific work, and the working conditions and expectations that UCPH can offer the scientists of the future.
If we become known as the place where the freedom of research is limited, then we are heading into a death spiral. The freedom of research is the core of what we do.
The scientists are the numerous PhD students and postdocs who are the workhorses in what Bjørnholm calls the modern university. It is a university where a large part of the activities are funded by foundations that, quite naturally, support the kind of research that they prefer themselves.
What does external funding mean for the freedom of research?
“First of all, it gives you a lot of freedom,” says Thomas Bjørnholm, anticipating the objections:
“A university like this needs to insist on the fact that it is the idea that is in focus, and that needs to be primary. The attraction of a university is, that we are a place where the wild ideas can thrive. If we become known as the place where the freedom of research is limited, then we are heading into a death spiral. The freedom of research is the core of what we do.
“Freedom of research means that you need to choose a method, you need to select an idea, and you need to be able to discuss it openly in a critical, reflective, environment. But that doesn’t mean that you can go to management and say that my freedom of research is being limited by the lack of funding. This is where the funding comes in. If you have decided you want to go to Mars, there should be nobody who says: No, you need to go to Pluto instead. But a part of freedom is also that you need to find out how to get up there, and who is to finance it. It is a healthy process that you need to convince somebody that it is worth investing in this, and here the foundations and endowments are an opportunity.”
The question about what this opportunity entails, has been a hot topic in academic circles in recent years. Heine Andersen is emeritus professor of sociology and the most insistent voice on Danish research freedom. According to him, the money has become a problem for research. The people who pay are deciding too much. At the end of 2017 he wrote in the University Post:
“The priorities are left to a well-financed external player that gets a share in Danish public ressources. There could be other, and more important types of knowledge, that we therefore do not get access to.”
In a whole range of opinion pieces (summarised in the cited featured article above) Heine Andersen and Thomas Bjørnholm have battled it out on freedom of research in several Danish newspapers. It has not been polite.
Heine Andersen has, in his comments, given the impression that attempts at dialogue with the University of Copenhagen are like banging your head against a brick wall. While Thomas Bjørnholm expresses that Heine Andersen’s criticism makes him want to bang his head on the table.
It is as if the two combatants don’t talk about freedom of research in the same language. Bjørnholm will in no way acknowledge that the balance between freedom and funding power is off kilter, and that the creating of ideas is to an unreasonable extent directed by where researchers can find funding.
“The idea needs to be number 1, and the money number 2. If you switch this around, you might as well shut down and lock the door as a university. It would take 10 years, perhaps 20, but all the graphs showing our increase in international reputation would start to point downwards, if we switched the ordering of this. A good university should always say: Idea first.”
But what about the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which has put 2.5 billion Danish kroner into UCPH over the past 10 years. They are interested in metabolism research, and in creating an environment of researchers and doctors that are interested in this subject. It this not an example of money first, idea second?
“For the individual researcher who from for a pure heart is interested in metabolism, it constitutes no restriction on the freedom of research, that a foundation shows great interest in it. But you can discuss at an institutional level, whether the total amount of opportunity for a country in developing new ideas will be skewed by strong forces that pull in one particular direction.”
So yes, it would be a structural problem, if all the funding came from two-three grant donors. But this is not what the situation is, and it should not become like this.
“You listen to Heine Andersen, and he is saying that alot of the three billion Danish kroner that UCPH gets each year in external funding out of a total budget of just over DKK 8 billion comes from the Novo Nordisk Foundation. But this is not the case,” says Thomas Bjørnholm and takes up a document showing from where external grants were given to researchers at UCPH during the period 2010-17.
“It constitutes less than 10 per cent of our total grants, which range individually from between DKK 45 million and DKK 1 billion. 55 per cent of grants were between one and 10 million Danish kroner. The number of individual applications is between five and six thousand. So yes, it would be a structural problem, if all the funding came from two-three grant donors. But this is not what the situation is, and it should not become like this. This is an important discussion. But we are far from the red line here.”
Heine Andersen has criticized that the size of the co-financing that is required when universities accept grant money, lays claim to university resources and draws people into a specific idea universe. Would UCPH have so much metabolism research, if it wasn’t for the Novo Nordisk Foundation? Would the focal point be somewhere else?
“It’s true that if a lot of money is put into a centre, then there will be activity in it, and then you can say that you have influenced it. A single foundation should not dominate things, but if you look at the University of Copenhagen, the diversity is not threatened. The litmus test must be whether we can attract internationally acclaimed researchers to the University of Copenhagen. And this is the case. We have never been so attractive to international researchers, and we have never had such a high scientific output. This would not be possible if the everyday freedom of research was threatened.”
“The difference between a university in the old days and the university today is that a researcher can come here – like Charlie Marcus from Harvard because he wanted to follow in Niels Bohr’s footsteps and set up a new quantum mechanical world centre in Copenhagen, establish a basic research center which might possibly put a ‘dent in the universe’ as Steve Jobs once said: A new way to calculate on a quantum computer.
The news site ForskerForum, which has requested access to documents relating to the contract between UCPH and Microsoft, quotes a consultant from the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs that crticises the terms of the agreement. There might
“Marcus’ free research has attracted Microsoft’s interest. It is not the other way round. Why is this interesting for him? Because if his quantum mechanical research is to become something else than just a new article in Science, and perhaps something that can change people’s lives, it requires that it is linked to a colossal innovative power. And the university does not have this.. This is outside, in businesses. Microsoft knows that they can’t get to build a research environment themselves, so they have chosen to put out their development departments in universities. This was courageous, and it gives a considerable boost to the University of Copenhagen.”
“There are no Microsoft people who have the power to instruct UCPH researchers. I refute this. But it is a good example with this contract. You need to give and take. If you solely want free research, and do not want to collaborate with anyone – then this becomes banal and trivial. Then you might be missing some money, and this can become an obstacle.
UCPH might be banking a few hundred million kroner on this; but Microsoft is banking many billion Danish kroner. So they have legitimate interests, which are also regulated by law, and which we follow.
“But if you want to get out and get huge grants and get huge firepower, because this is what it requires to become no. 1 in the world in one particular area, then you must work together with others. It is like getting married. Microsoft also has a legitimate interest, which is a different interest than the university’s. And this is a conflict of interest.”
Why does the contract need to be kept secret?
“The access given to ForskerForum is given in accordance with the letter of the law as we interpret it, but Microsoft does not just look at UCPH, they also look at their competitors, and they believe that it is a competitive advantage to them to keep the contract a secret. UCPH might be banking a few hundred million kroner on this; but Microsoft is banking many billion Danish kroner. So they have legitimate interests, which are also regulated by law, and we follow the law.
And while we talk about legitimate interests: There are some indications that not everyone at the modern university feels that their legitimate interests are being upheld. In recent times, a group of primarily young research students and researchers at UCPH have protested against the terms which they are being offered.
They are given temporary project positions, but they want continuity, the freedom of research and a degree of job security. They call themselves an academic precariat, and they point to a long list of problems: Uncertainty, hidden overtime, an enormous amount of time used on applying for research grants, and a lack of freedom of research due to time constraints and predefined requests from their superiors and grant donors.
But while those on precarious contracts have received support, or at least sympathy, from academic unions, Thomas Bjørnholm prefers to talk about the expectations of young researchers.
Claus Baggersgaard took part in this interview with Thomas Bjørnholm.
The universities must determine which researchers, they will focus on, and then the funds give money to them in open competition
“Look at this,” he says and finds
The model looks like a construction in Dubai. A tower, that points up and extends far toward the sky like, dare we say it, an ivory tower. At the bottom is the foundation, made up of UCPH’s just over 40,000 students, on top of this is the large layer of PhDs (3,119), postdocs (1,058), and assistant professors (346) in the research programmes and projects.
And on top, at the tip of the needle, the permanently hired. What Bjørnholm calls ‘faculty’, that is the university’s academic core staff.
“The PhDs and the postdocs are not here, as a starting point, to become UCPH associate professors and professors. They are here to take this knowledge that they have acquired and have helped to create, out into society. A modern university is not for PhD students and postdocs to be hired in it. It would correspond to a school that hires all its own students. As a point of departure, all our project employees and young people in temporary positions at UCPH have a great starting point for a career outside the University of Copenhagen.”
At the same time, younger researchers should not count on the same degree of freedom of research as a full professor.
I tell them to leave. The honest signal to all PhD students and postdocs at the University of Copenhagen is: The most likely scenario for you is that you have to leave UCPH.
“If you want to become faculty, you will be in international competition for these positions. The strategy is, that young people are working on a research project, and here lies the freedom of research, the scope of which is determined by them being a part of a larger research group, so for the individual there are limitations. The root of research freedom lies within the faculty staff. It is those that should have unrestricted freedom of research.”
When you talk to postdocs or PhD students it sounds as if they often entertain a hope for permanent employment. It is as if they have not understood the model. It’s as if they are in the process of qualifying for a permanent job at UCPH.
“This is true. And I meet this attitude as well.” Fortunately less and less.”
What do you say to them?
I tell them to leave. The honest signal to all PhD students and postdocs at the University of Copenhagen is: The most likely scenario is, that you have to leave the University of Copenhagen – with a fantastic opportunity to become something, somewhere else. This is our task.”
Is there anyone in research management that does not communicate this?
“It is a long haul. And the answer is yes, but there are less and less of them. There are subject areas where becoming a postdoc is almost synonymous with being able to proceed in the same department. This is why we, also as a part of our strategy, include career development. We are not there yet, but we are on our way.”
“In the old days, universities took one per cent of young people. Today, we take 25 per cent of the same age cohort. It has been a huge business. The old university got basic funding, and no-one kept tabs on whether the money was being used sensibly. With the university reforms in the 2000s, they turned the management structures upside-down. And they said that if we invest so many billions in the university sector, then they must also be accountable to the taxpayers. The answer to this was, that much of the funding, should be subject to competition. In this way we will keep you on your toes.”
“And the response from universities on how to transform this into a good, stable routine with freedom of research is the model we talked about. Because if you have basic funding that pays for permanent staff, rent and degree programmes, the more external funding you get for more PhD students and postdocs, the more of your ideas will gain traction in society through the education of young people. And if there is a funding squeeze one day, you can hire fewer people, without it having to shake the whole organization from one moment to another. Most of what the faculty wants to do, they will then have to find external funding for, and in this way compete with other good ideas out there.”
“It’s a healthy model, and it is not interference with the freedom of research. It’s just an insistence on the quality of research.”
There has been one line of criticism, that it is uninspiring and conventional thinking that puts money into postdoc positions instead of hiring more people.
“The conversion from basic funding to external funding has led to some pockets in the structure with several disadvantages.”
People say that it is not fun to have to constantly attempt to extend your contract, when you have a family. How are these people supposed to get their daily lives to function?
The old university was given a basic funding grant, and nobody kept tabs on the money being used sensibly.
“By making a really good career plan from the start. The task of the University of Copenhagen is to support this career plan and give a realistic picture of what a decision to become a PhdD or postdoc at the University of Copenhagen entails. I am talking about the picture at an institutional level. Because I know that for an individual there can be very difficult choices to make. I understand this. We need to improve the clarity that we give people.”
Idea first, then money. Is this the advice given anywhere else in Denmark?
“It is the advice given in Sweden, and this is according to the Scientific Academy which awards the Nobel Prize. They issued a report and the main point was that Denmark, the Netherlands and Switzerland perform better than Sweden on different parameters. Sweden has focussed too much on the competition, so that universities have become hotels for researchers who have received funding from others, so that all decisions on who should be at universities are taken by foundations. This is not what we want. The universities must decide which researchers they want to focus on, and then the foundations should grant money in open competition
But the Danish grant donors don’t hold themselves back in defining the direction of research. The so-called services to authorities in particular – where the university solves a predefined task for the government – have raised doubts about the Danish researchers’ independence. The Danish news site Berlingske recently unravelled a spectacular process at Aarhus University, where management used harsh methods to silence scientific debate on research results about the agricultural sector and to maintain a good relationship with government.
Related to the freedom of research are the so-called gag contracts where external grant donors reserves the right to decide when researchers should publish their results. UCPH found eight contracts of this type, when it recently went through its portfolio after massive pressure, including from Heine Andersen.
Most recently there has been the SEGES case where UCPH signed off on a document purely to safeguard SEGES’ interests. Why did UCPH do this?
“The SEGES case is a contracted research project. It is not something that we do a lot,” says Thomas Bjørnholm. “There is no freedom of research in it, but the money gives some opportunities for a research group. It is not something that management says that UCPH researchers should go out and find a lot of. The contract does not signal that this was contracted research and not ordinary, free research, and we need to address this. But it was around DKK 100,000, and a lot of genuine living research came of the project, which was subsequently financed by other sources.”
“We have now tightened up these contracts. We might have 50,000 different specific research partnerships, all radiating from the University of Copenhagen, and then are a few of them, where the contracts are not completely in order. This is not so strange. Of course you should try to get everything in order, and have clear guidelines for everything. But you should also be careful not to exaggerate the importance of the very few cases where things have not been up to par.”
Does anyone at UCPH have the full picture of all of these contracts?
“We have gathered all the contracts in one office.”
Prorector Thomas Bjørnholm says that the process at Aarhus University does not look good from the outside.
“The process around the government’s agricultural package gives food for thought. The ground rules for researchers’ counselling of authorities needs an overhaul. When the Danish government offers a consulting topic for tender, it can be hard for universities to decline the offer. I’m sure that all parties do their best to make things work out, but it doesn’t look easy.”
“The management at the University of Copenhagen, which at the time merged the University of Pharmaceutical Sciences and the former KVL, did their homework. It was in a situation where everything was in play. A merger was carried out in Copenhagen with an academic focus on Life Science. The former chairman Bodil Nyboe Andersen was very clear about it. UCPH was to take basic research as its starting point, even though we naturally offer consulting to authorities in several areas. And she said that a university is a university and that a government research institution is a government research institution. Birds of a feather, flock together..”