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University of Copenhagen
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They want to start a movement: Bring back the joy in research

Wild on purpose — One younger research activist, and one established professor. They come from two different places. But they both reach the same conclusion: Research is in big trouble. Maria Toft and Ole Wæver want to set up a free Nordic research movement with the space for creative, playful, and experimental research.

»Imagine all the things you can’t imagine.«

This is a brain-twister from the former PhD student Maria Toft. It sounds difficult, and it is. But this is exactly what she and Professor of International Relations Ole Wæver are asking researchers from throughout the Nordic countries to try out.

Researchers need to imagine a place where creativity can take root. A place where this creativity can reach out, and into, society and do good things, make a difference, and create meaning.

They should imagine an existence where community, creativity, and trust allow for wild experiments that lead to important scientific breakthroughs.

»We say no to what exists, and seek fundamental change. »Among younger researchers, I sense a deep longing for something else. Towards what was once the heart of what science is. Towards actually creating something,« says Maria Toft.

This coming April she, Ole Wæver, and a large group of researchers are organizing a symposium at the Nordic Summer University (NSU) in Gothenburg, Sweden with the title ‘The creation of a new free researcher movement’. Participating researchers will work together over three days to produce a manifesto for a movement in all the Nordic and Baltic countries.

They want to rethink the science framework, and its role in society.

The two researchers have previously been behind a campaign in Denmark called ‘Set Research Free’. The campaign got 2,525 researcher signatures on a petition that managed to get through to politicians by shedding light on the poor state of research freedom. Now the two researchers are ready for the next phase.

READ ALSO: Scientists want commission to investigate research freedom

They want to start from scratch and help create that other thing that they themselves so dearly yearn for.

»It’s hard to lobby for this, because we have no idea where it will end. But that’s the whole point. And this requires that we manage to free ourselves from the logics and systems that we ourselves have been beholden to, for far too long,« says Maria Toft.

Researcher activism

Maria Toft was a PhD student back in the beginning of 2022. She spoke out about how older researchers had unjustifiably taken part of the credit for her original research ideas. In collaboration with the PhD Association Network of Denmark, PAND, she launched the campaign #pleasedontstealmywork against research theft.

In the same year, Maria Toft, Ole Wæver and a number of other researchers started the ‘Set research free’ movement with a petition addressed to party leaders and research spokespersons. The call was published on the Danish media Politiken in June 2022 and in just one week received thousands of signatures from researchers across the country.

In the petition, researchers described how precarious terms of employment, time pressure, lack of trust between employees and managers, a centralized management, and a combination of commercial and political interests had compromised free research.

»The movement resonated at all Danish universities, also internationally. It opened the door to the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, where Ole and I, along with a number of other researchers, were invited to a meeting with Jesper Petersen who was then Minister for Science,« says Maria Toft, adding with a laugh:

»Well, and then there was a Danish general election, and everyone forgot all about it.«

The petition points specifically to Danish university legislation from 2003 as the starting point of an unfortunate trend. The researchers called on politicians to set up a commission to look into the freedom of research. The former minister did not comply with this demand. But the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFIR) launched an investigation into universities last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the Danish University Act.

There has been an increase in cynicism. And researchers have just learned to play the game. They have learned how to write bullshit documents.
Professor Ole Wæver

In this you could read that the 2003 Danish legislation had been successful in its goal of opening universities up to the outside world. But, the report concluded, the law has had problematic consequences internally at universities. This included a lack of democracy, and a freedom of research that is under tremendous pressure.

In the wake of these two campaigns, Maria Toft chose to resign from her position as PhD student at the University of Copenhagen at the beginning of 2023.

»I knew this would be completely kamikaze. But I could simply not stand it anymore,« she said at the time to the University Post.

Universities undermined from the inside

»I hardly fly at all nowadays. But when I did, I always spent the time looking down at the fields in the landscape. Large squares, neatly placed next to each other, but with clear boundaries. And one day it struck me that this is exactly how the university is designed,« says Maria Toft.

Danish universities today are what Maria Toft describes as »a barren desert where no wildflowers can grow.« There are several reasons for this. For one, there has never been a strong academic community among Danish researchers, according to Maria Toft and Ole Wæver. This results in vanishingly few interdisciplinary collaborations.

»Paradoxically, it has been a disadvantage for researchers in Denmark that we have such a strong trade union tradition. We are members of all kinds of different trade unions. and in some of the largest unions we are even minorities, and are represented by non-researchers,« says Maria Toft. Ole Wæver adds:

»We have historically been bad at fighting our cause. That’s probably why no one has spoken up until now. It is, of course, only the researchers themselves who have been able to observe how freedom has been curtailed over the past 20 years.«


Maria Toft (b. 1980). MSc Political Science, University of Copenhagen, 2015 Unfinished PhD at the Department of Political Science, UCPH until 2023.

Started the campaign #Pleasedontstealmywork against research theft (2022) as well as the movement Set research free (2022), which ended up gathering 2,525 signatures for the petition.

She now does independent lectures on the green transition via communities and poetry. She is also working on completing her PhD dissertation.

Ole Wæver (b. 1960) MA (1985) and PhD in Political Science (1997), UCPH. Professor of international politics at the Department of Political Science, UCPH since 1999.

Former chairman of the Research Policy Committee, Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. Has received the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize (2012) and the Hesbjerg Foundation Peace Research Prize (2015) and been appointed Knight of the Order of Dannebrog (2014) and Honorary Doctor at Turku University, Finland (2015).

Internationally known for the concept of ‘securitization’ and for being behind the so-called Copenhagen School, a globally influential theoretical school of thought in international politics and security policy.

Several studies place Denmark at the lower end in terms of academic freedom. A study from 2017 by Terrence Karran of the UK placed Denmark down at number 24 out of 28 EU countries. A report from the think tank Justitia from 2021 examined how academic freedom was protected in Denmark relative to other Nordic countries. Denmark was at the bottom on this score also.

Ole Wæver says that universities are slowly falling apart from the inside. On the outside, the facades are still intact. In terms of output – the number of publications and citations – Denmark ranks quite nicely in the international rankings.

»Or we certainly used to. Because the curve is starting to drop here. The poor conditions for research are now also beginning to show up in output terms,« says Ole Wæver. He refers to the report ‘The scientific impact of Danish research 1980-2020’ that was commissioned and financed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Villum Foundation.

»Talented researchers from Aarhus University investigated here Danish research articles’ impact. They updated the measurements that ten years ago had everyone patting each other on the back and praising the Danish model. It’s thought-provoking. The world of research moves slowly. But now, 20 years after the Danish University Act, we can admit to ourselves that something is very, very wrong. And the longer we wait to do something about it, the longer it takes to rectify it,« he says.

»It will take 10-20 years to catch up with everything we have lost.«

The fact that output has remained more or less stable for such a long time probably just reflects the fact that people have become adept at ticking off the right boxes rather than actually succeeding in creating something, according to Ole Wæver:

»But in reality, people have withdrawn completely from the community. Everyone is trying to survive on their own. There has been an increase in cynicism. And researchers have just learned to play the game. They have learned how to write bullshit documents, that can simulate living up to the requirements of a successful research application because it is assessed by someone who does not understand the research area in question,« he says.

Meanwhile, the big and important conversations at the university have gone silent:

»In too many subjects, colleagues tell us that no one is discussing where their field of research is going, or what they dream of developing. Because they are no longer the ones who make the important decisions. Management is doing this for them,« says Ole Wæver:

»We have slowly stopped taking ourselves seriously. We no longer have a connection to the heart and soul of what we are here for. It is a slow, but all-but-certain undermining from within. Sooner or later, it will also start to have an impact on our results and have consequences for our society,« he says.

The researcher as artist

The independent research movement is rooted in a vision for creating both better and more meaningful lives for researchers, while at the same time contributing with the knowledge that society needs if research is to have any chance of solving the world’s crises.

»We have spoken out, and we have gone against the established system. But our rebellion also contributes to maintaining the status quo. Because when we oppose what exists, we also confirm it. We need to therefore remove ourselves completely from the system. This is the next, necessary, phase,« says Maria Toft.

When she tries to explain the general thoughts behind leading researchers towards a new way of conducting research, she compares a researcher to an artist. Because the two, she says, work similarly.

The work takes place in three stages.

»The first stage is to put the brush on the canvas. This is where you imagine everything that your work of art can become. Something wants to emerge within you. Personally, it’s the stage I love the most. This is where the creation starts, and the ideas flow freely,« says Maria Toft.

The next stage is the actual work. You paint and give shape to all the thoughts, ideas and ideas in an actual painting. You make mistakes, paint over it, and start again.

»And then the third and final stage. Your painting is finished and now you have to display it. Everyone can see it, talk about it, discuss it and criticize it. We’re really good at that part nowadays,« Maria Toft laughs.

»Maybe you make a few brush strokes, and amend things, but that’s it. And here is the point. Because the system under which we work today supports almost exclusively the last stage. A whole lot is being written, but nothing is being created,« she says.

Ole Wæver adds:

»There is this trend for a huge amount of research being done, where only one item is changed. At the same time all the radical and original ideas disappear completely. In fact, Nature – of all journals – published a study in early 2023 documenting quantitatively that innovation in scientific publications has dropped dramatically.«

Self-sufficient and debt-free

Maria Toft and Ole Wæver cannot yet answer the question of where and how the free research movement should exist in the world. But if it is up to Maria Toft, the movement should not just be a space for conversation, it should also manifest itself as a physical place.

»This is just my dream, and I can’t speak on behalf of everyone on this,« she laughs.

»But I think that if we are to really succeed in creating something different, we need to liberate ourselves completely. We are beholden to obligations, structures and logics. And ideas cannot thrive freely in that setting,« she says.

Maria Toft dreams of entire research communities, preferably located close to nature. The researchers here should live with their families, be reasonably self-sufficient and free of obligations, and they succeed in combining family life with creative and innovative research.

»It will require large start-up capital. And people need to agree to completely reduce their own consumption,« says Maria Toft.
I ask if she envisions a life where people literally dedicate their entire existence to research. This has Maria Toft and Ole Wæver bursting into laughter.

»Well, that’s the whole point …« exclaims Ole Wæver, »… that we’re already doing that. No one enters a life of research that isn’t really, really passionate about it. We could have made far more money, had shorter working hours and all sorts of other good things if we hadn’t dedicated our lives to research,« he says.

And what Maria Toft suggests is actually not as »hippie-ish« as it might sound, he objects:

»These ideas already exist in the university tradition. If you go to Cambridge or Oxford University, you’ll find colleges where people eat and live together with other researchers. And this happens across multiple disciplines.«

When we oppose what exists, we also confirm it. We need to therefore remove ourselves completely from the system. This is the next, necessary, phase
Researcher Maria Toft

Clearly, both Maria Toft and Ole Wæver admit, not all types of research will be able to break away from established systems and the external funding that is wrapped up in political and business interests.

»Of course there are some circumstances in, say particle physics, that require conditions and construction that costs a lot of money. This kind of research cannot be done out in a field,« says Ole Wæver and continues:

»In these cases, I see our movement more like a parallel system that researchers can seek out to get creative input. Hopefully some of them will have a double life in terms of research. And for other, less resource-intensive types of research, it might make sense to jump over the fence completely.«

International appeal

These aspirations are for the distant future. The initiators see two paths forward in their continued work with the movement.

One path begins with the symposium in April, where they, with their Scandinavian counterparts, will formulate a manifesto that, according to Maria Toft, will have an »international appeal.«

The second path is limited to Danish universities. Here, the pioneers dream of creating greater cohesion, so that Danish researchers in the long run can gain a common voice.

»We want to set up a research magazine so that all are thoughts are put together in one place. And we hope that a freedom of research monitoring unit will be set up, and an independent complaints authority for researchers who experience things like research theft,« says Maria Toft, and continues:

»We also have a vision of reducing the gap between society and the knowledge of researchers. By setting up a common database, for example, or a kind of ‘free-floating university’ with all the researchers and their papers, so that knowledge becomes more easily accessible. That is how it should be in an enlightened democracy.«

»Most people have understood that something is very wrong,« says Ole Wæver:

»Now we just hope that there will also be the political will to change some of the structures. And while we wait for that, we will work with this alternative,« he says.

Everyone who is involved in the project is currently working voluntarily. The only financial aspect comes from the Nordic Summer University (NSU), which will host the symposium in April and again in the summer of 2024, where the movement hopefully will find more space and direction.

»Our movement is actually linked to what was the original idea behind the Nordic Summer University,« says Ole Wæver.

NSU is a Nordic research forum under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers and has functioned as an independent academic institution since 1950. It organises winter and summer symposia across disciplines in the Nordic and Baltic countries, and it is supported by local study circles in many university cities.

»NSU has functioned as a parallel network where researchers can try out wild ideas alongside their usual research for as long as I can remember. When I was a young researcher 35-40 years ago, it was a completely central place for me,« says Ole Wæver.

He laments the fact that NSU »like so much other Nordic co-operation has been both undermined and eroded financially.«

»But it still functions as one of the few places where you can think freely,« he says. »Ideas that seem crazy in an academic setting are tested here, and some of them lead to new paths for research, sometimes even completely new research areas. As Maria said, you often have to be in a room with confidence, playfulness and fighting spirit to create something important.«

»We don’t think that we will get the best health from [pharmaceutical giant, ed.] Novo Nordisk managing everything. Or the most sustainable society from the Danish Agriculture & Food Council lobby influencing research with its interests,« says Maria Toft.

»We do, on the other hand, believe that new paths can open up that we cannot yet imagine when people get together and build new bridges.«

The symposium ‘Creating a free research movement’ will take place at the Nordic Summer University in Gothenburg from 5-7 April 2024.