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Independent postdoc fellowships disappearing in Denmark

Career paths — The Carlsberg Foundation will no longer dispense funding to new PhDs who want to stay in Denmark. This makes it more difficult to pursue your own ideas as a postdoc in Denmark. It will affect young researchers with families, critics say.

The Carlsberg Foundation had probably not expected that a small change in their policy for postdoc grants would lead to an outcry. But it has.

Unlike last year, the foundation will not support new PhDs who want to stay in Denmark for their own postdoc projects. They will instead grant funding to young researchers who go abroad, and to those who have been out of the country and want to continue their research in Denmark.

Several researchers responded quickly to the news story on Twitter.

»The option of internationalisation is, of course, good, but for people with families and children this is not a real option. This is something that the country’s research politicians should look at seriously,« wrote Rune Møller Stahl, postdoc at the University of Copenhagen.

We do not have the finances to set aside funding for independent postdocs to Danes that cannot move abroad

Kim Brinckmann, Vice Director for Research and Innovation, University of Copenhagen

Christoph Ellersgaard wrote that he, and the other authors of the [Danish, ed.] ‘Magteliten’ study, which investigated how 423 Danes control the country would not have been able to carry out the project without their postdoc grants.

And to the University Post, young researchers say that the change will affect them, or would have affected them. One of them is Simon Bager, who is already working on a PhD at a Belgian university while his wife and child have a permanent base in Denmark.

»I can feel how hard it is for me and my family that I am doing something where I am forcing my career choice upon my wife because I want to do research,« he says.

»Those who would like to go abroad must, of course, be able to do so. But to make it a rigid requirement keeps people stuck, and will perhaps, for some, discourage them from doing research at all.«

It is not necessarily all about the Carlsberg Foundation. The Foundation’s decision is only a small part of a trend that is reducing the options for doing own independent projects as postdocs in Denmark. As early as 2016, the Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF) shut down a similar pool in the wake of largescale cutbacks.

But:

»This was probably the last straw,« says Hjalte Bonde Meilvang, former PhD student at the University of Copenhagen.

Or as Kim Brinckmann, Vice Director of Research and Innovation says about the trend:

»This expresses very well the Danish research landscape as it stands today.«

A stay abroad is a necessity

It is precisely this research landscape that the Carlsberg Foundation believes they have adapted to. The universities’ sermons about internationalisation have meant that researchers are rarely employed if they do not have experience from abroad.

This is according to the chairman of the foundation Flemming Besenbacher in an email to the University Post.

»It would therefore be doing talented young researchers a disservice to keep them believing that a postdoc in Denmark will qualify them for permanent employment,« says the chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation Flemming Besenbacher.

I think they have short-circuited the conversation about what it takes to choose a university career. It is based on you becoming an assistant professor

David Dreyer Lassen, chairman of the board for Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF)

After criticism in the research community, the Carlsberg Foundation set up a web page with frequently asked questions explaining that they still support Danish postdocs that return from abroad, and will also provide extra support for researchers with family who move abroad.

According to the young researchers that the University Post talked to, many people will not be applying for funding if it means that they need to go abroad. Financial support or not.

It is a particular problem in Denmark where researchers, on average, are older than in other countries when they submit their PhD.

»According to many of the Carlsberg Foundation applicants that we talked to, it is best to go abroad as soon as possible after completing your PhD, because the longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes due to family obligations,« writes Besenbacher.

»However, you have to realize, that if you have research career ambitions, a stay abroad is a necessary investment in your career opportunities and the future. Good investments often give a high long-term return.«

Not enough money for postdoc pools

Kim Brinckmann, Vice Director for Research and Innovation at the University of Copenhagen, admits that it is difficult to get employed at a university if you do not have experience from abroad – and that this can make for a selection that is not always appropriate.

»This is a structural challenge in Denmark, where PhD graduates have a higher age on average. Some of them have, for example, already established families and have taken on mortgages. This can lead to people opting out of a postdoc position. That is why it is, of course, good if private or public-sector initiatives better support research talent nationally,« says Kim Brinckmann.

I can easily understand why many would like to continue a research career when they have a PhD, but I'm not sure that we are doing the best thing by keeping some of them in limbo for two more years.
David Dreyer Lassen, chairman of the board for Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF)

It is precisely because it was one of the last opportunities to apply for independent postdoc funding in Denmark, that the Carlsberg Foundation’s new practices have provoked the research community. Foundations such as VELUX, the Lundbeck Foundation and the New Carlsberg Foundation still provide Danish postdoc fellowships, but the funding is connected to specific projects or topics.

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At the University of Copenhagen, new postdoc fellowships in Denmark are not a priority either.

»We do not have the finances to set aside funding for independent postdocs for Danes that cannot move abroad. There are many other challenges that we also have to address. In this way a problem arises when there is a halt to this mechanism within the overall [postdoc, ed.] landscape,« says Kim Brinckmann.

The postdoc swamp

The Independent Research Fund Denmark (DFF) also shut down a pool for Danish postdoc fellowships in 2016, after the foundation’s budget was hit by cuts. The chairman, David Dreyer Lassen, believes that the debate about postdoc funding is often misguided.

»It is a very Danish thing to think that you start your career as an independent young researcher as a postdoc. In other countries, you become a postdoc on an already existing project led by a professor, or you become an assistant professor where you can pursue your own research ideas.«

He says that the foundation is constantly discussing whether the postdoc programme is »doing the right thing« for Danish research. Right now, the answer is not necessarily yes.

»As things stand at the moment, if you want to pursue a career as a researcher, it is best done in a permanent position at the university.«

The option of internationalisation is, of course, good, but for people with families and children this is often not a real option.

Rune Møller Stahl, postdoc, University of Copenhagen

But young researchers can rightly argue that there are no permanent positions?

»Then you can say that if this is the case, then there are no positions after a postdoc,« he says.

»I can easily understand why many would like to continue a research career when they have a PhD, but I’m not sure that we are doing the best thing by keeping some of them in limbo for two more years.«

He mentions a recent report from the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy that speaks of a ‘postdoc swamp’. The growth in PhD positions, which resulted from a Danish political agreement, the globalisation agreement of 2006, and increases in external funding, have led to many young researchers ending up in temporary positions with no prospect of permanent employment at the university.

That universities’ budgets have been cut by two per cent annually since 2016 has not helped either. However, according to David Dreyer Lassen, it is not the foundations’ responsibility to make up for universities’ shortfall.

»I find that people have short-circuited the conversation about what it takes to get a university career. A university career is based on you making it to assistant professor, in a fixed-term position where you can be observed for a while,« he says.

No more assistant professors

Young researchers, on the other hand, have become dependent on getting external funding from foundations. Foundations that evaluate a project, but that do not look at the applicant’s portfolio or the ability to teach, like they do at university.

»To some degree, what happens when the foundations offer postdoc positions is that the universities think that they do not need as many assistant professors. This is what has happened. Because then there are young people that the universities can keep and lead on to an associate professor position,« says David Dreyer Lassen.

»But if you only allow future associate professors to be people who have been given a postdoc through a foundation, then the [hiring, ed.] decision is actually taken by someone who only looks at a single project. I find that this is almost the biggest problem in this.«

He believes that it is the universities’ responsibility to set up more assistant professor positions, even though they are under financial pressure.

But it is doubtful whether this will happen. At least at the University of Copenhagen. The funds are not available, according to Kim Brinckmann.

»We are looking at our career paths, and in this context we also look at career development for our postdoc employees. But it always comes down to the economic options that we have at the university.«

So you do not expect to be setting up more assistant professor positions in the near future?

»No, this is not an economic scenario that we are looking at.«

But is it not a problem that those who end up getting permanent positions are those who have had the chance to get money from a foundation and who have had the opportunity to go abroad?

»Right now, it is wisest to observe the trend and see if this is something that affects the quality and development of talent at the university.«

The funding has costs

It is not only in the selection of future researchers that the private foundations have gained greater influence over the university. This has happened more generally.

As the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten wrote recently, the overall share of private funding has increased dramatically to the universities – from DKK 274 million to DKK 1.2 billion since 2007, just at the University of Copenhagen. This means that universities can invest in ambitious projects which they would not be able to afford themselves. But this has consequences.

The foundations rarely cover the full cost of the projects they fund, which means that the universities must use their basic funding from government to cover the shortfall. Basic funding that could have ensured more permanent positions at the university to, say, young researchers.

It is not a problem that the Carlsberg Foundation and other foundations support outstanding Danish research. The problem is that the basic funding from government has actually been dropping.

Flemming Besenbacher, chairman of the board, Carlsberg Foundation

Kim Brinckmann reckons that the limited payment of overhead, and the universities’ inability to retain talented researchers, is connected. And the University of Copenhagen is trying to get more of its overhead cost covered in the future. This is the idea behind a new budget model that compels faculties to pay to a fund in common at the university when they receive external funding.

But Brinckmann rejects the idea that the University of Copenhagen should say no to some private financing in order to better release basic funding.

»If you say no to private funding, you are also saying no to participating in some really important research projects that we would like to be involved in. It is a short-sighted strategy to say no to the opportunities that exist there.«

The chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, Flemming Besenbacher, says that the foundation covers project-related expenses described in the application, but will not grant »unspecified overhead«.

»It is not a problem that the Carlsberg Foundation and other foundations support outstanding Danish research. The foundations’ contribution is to raise the quality of Danish research, and in the Carlsberg Foundation, the researchers have complete freedom once they have received a grant,« he writes in an email.

»The problem is rather that the government basic funding has not been increased correspondingly, and has actually dropped. We should make sure that the public contribution to Danish research over the next 10 years increases to 1.5 per cent of GDP.«

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