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On 'ideas' — a letter to the Minister for Higher Education and Science

Open letter — Six scientists behind a campaign to safeguard freedom of research in Denmark met the Minister for Higher Education and science, Jesper Petersen. Maria Toft is one of them, and she shared her thoughts on the situation at the universities before the meeting.

Dear Jesper

Everything that we have put around us is, in some way, an expression of ideas. Satellites in space, the coffee machine, the Danish government’s portal, and the parents’ school app Aula. Some ideas are better executed than others. But that’s not the point here. What is important is the realization that everything starts with an idea. Ideas create our words. Words create our actions. Actions create our habits. The habits create our character, and our character creates (perhaps) our destiny.

It sounds dramatic, but that is because it is dramatic. More than ever before, we as a society stand at a crossroads. The choice as to which path we will choose can have serious consequences for our democracy, our finances, our nature, our access to food and drink – and ultimately our survival and well-being here on Earth. Researchers are, by definition, idealists: People who are driven by their ideas, and we know, just like you do, that one idea can change everything.

That is why it is crucial that we take care of the true hearth of these ideas: the universities. It is crucial that we safeguard the freedom of thought and the freedom to pursue research interests. We know that you do not disagree with us on this. We are not saying this for our own sake, but for the sake of the society that we are a part of.


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The freedom of research situation

This June, 2,252 researchers and PhD students from all over the country signed an open letter to politicians called ‘Set research free’. Here, we described the state of the universities and the current conditions for the freedom of research in Denmark. We pointed to three areas that were important to look at in a review of the conditions for freedom of research:

1) An evaluation and audit of the 2003 Danish University Act that will take action against the secrecy and culture of fear that has evolved in an almost militarised management structure. After our petition to politicians, a majority of the parties in the Danish Parliament seem to be open for revising the university legislation, as most of them see how safe, constructive working environments help academic innovation and creativity. We are grateful for this opening, and we look forward to ongoing discussions with the parliamentary spokespersons.

2) More basic funding for free research and more permanent positions in order to create a framework for deep creativity, idea development and thought. External funding is necessary, but it has also led to a number of problems: A rapid growth in short-term appointments, the restriction of researchers’ opportunities to ask their own research questions, the risk of research being driven by short-sighted political and commercial interests, the tying up of basic funding to the co-financing of externally funded projects, and the increase in time spent on attracting external funding.

In recent years, an abyss of arrogance has appeared between science on the one hand, and the political, civil society, and journalistic spheres on the other.

3) A general review of the incentive structures for research, credit-transfer targets and the funding of research. We point out here, that the way in which we measure the success of the research has been distorted, so that the pure numbers of publications and citations outweighs the quality of them. This could result in less priority being given to high-risk/high-gain research in favour of ’safe’ research trajectories, and the concentration of research funding in a few researchers at large centres. This will further weaken the diversity, and ultimately the quality, of the good ideas.

The petition and the demonstration received international attention in Times Higher Education and University World News. In the Nordic countries, conditions for the freedom of research are being described as the ‘Danish situation’.

Knowledge is power, and social responsibility follows from this

Knowledge and skills come with a big responsibility. Not only because knowledge itself is powerful, but because it has a purity and a universalism that is prior to everything else – just like ideas.

The American sociologist Robert K. Merton set out normative principles for good science in 1942. The so-called CUDOS principles mean that science must be constituted by a collaborative community and be freely accessible. It needs to be universal, and independent of time, place and culture. It must be impartial and independent of interests. It should contribute new knowledge. And finally, it needs to systematically investigate claims, be anti-authoritarian, and uphold scepticism. It is doubtful whether all of these conditions are met under the current conditions for research.

Perhaps Danish science today instead meets another set of standards: One which the sociologist John Ziman described in 1984 as the marketing of science called ‘PLACE’: A set of norms in which knowledge is subject to private ownership and is not automatically published (Proprietary); focuses on Local, technical problems, not understanding; is Authoritarian (the boss decides); you get specific practical objectives (Commissioned); and is Expert-oriented towards crushing problems, not driven by curiosity.

But the true social responsibility of research is fulfilled under conditions of freedom.

Not only freedom from external intervention – political or commercial interests – but also freedom to pursue research interests. This does not mean that research should not solve some of society’s specific and urgent challenges and be strategic. This is important too. But this freedom, a combination of the time and the courage to be deeply creative, to cultivate a sense of wonder, and to pursue the questions you really do not know the answer to: This is a prerequisite for major breakthroughs and the development of society.

Collaboration rather than division – humility rather than arrogance

The only thing worse than ignorance – is arrogance. Arrogance is a symptom of secretiveness, an anger towards the outside world, and a fearful struggle over who has won a debate. Its opposite is having the courage to acknowledge that you do not know everything. It is precisely this humility and the wisdom to know your own limitations that are the basis of collaboration and shared growth. It was this humility that was Niels Bohr’s attitude towards the world, and he got an almost childish pleasure out of asking ‘why, why, why?’ to everything and everyone. If one response led to three new questions, he was happy.

In recent years, an abyss of arrogance has appeared between science on the one hand, and the political, civil society, and journalistic spheres on the other.

This summer’s debate over the Danish TV broadcaster’s fake science satire ‘Ellen Imellem’ and the counter-campaign by the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs (DM) was an example of this rift that has only grown in recent years with smear campaigns from both sides.

It needs to be stopped – now. And we should do like the ideas (which, by the way, comes from the Greek word ‘idein’ which means ‘to see’): Step back and ask what the purpose of this research actually was? We all have to dare to ask the right questions and not just come up with the right answers.

Let us use the upcoming Danish general election as an opportunity to start afresh, this time anchored in collaboration and humility and with the purpose of improving the conditions for the freedom of research in Denmark. It will safeguard the most beautiful thing we have. The freedom to think.

This was just an idea…