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Too few funds, too much control. Astrophysicist lays into Danish research policy

Basic research has been under-prioritised and underfunded for a long time - and it may end up costing Denmark dearly, says Anja C. Andersen.

Anja C. Andersen, a professor in astrophysics, was meant to complete the manuscript for her new book about the role of science in society in April last year, just a month after the corona crisis had fundamentally changed our society and the way we talk about science.

When she started the book, she hoped it would make science more visible, but all the top news stories suddenly revolved around virology and vaccine production, making science more visible than ever.

Did this make her book redundant?

Paradoxically, it did not, she concluded.

On the one hand, lay people are now used to discussing the basic reproductive rate of corona virus, research into masks and peer review, and professors like Jens Lundgren and Lone Simonsen have become household names, inundated with questions about when we will be able to hug each other and whether Roskilde Festival will be cancelled.

Most people realise that science holds the key to a return to normality.

On the other hand, research is under pressure because of the corona crisis. The dwindling GDP will mean a decrease in public research funding unless politicians decide to increase research allocations (in the most recent budget, they filled the gap by earmarking funding for green research). The public research budget in Denmark is meant to be minimum of one per cent of the GDP, but in reality, governments of all political persuasions often consider this to be the maximum level of funding.

At the same time, researchers and students have been sent home in droves during the corona crisis, even during periods when schools and shops have been open.

According to Anja C. Andersen, this shows that the political tendency to neglect universities and research has continued during the corona crisis.

»People are aware researchers are the ones developing vaccines and testing options; that we need research to get us out of the crisis.«

»But in the spring reopening plan, universities were in phase four along with nightclubs. What the hell is that about? Are nightclubs and universities equally important to society?«

So there is no connection between the public’s reverence for science and political decision making?

»No.«

»Sometimes you wonder whether they have thought this through at all? Some laboratories were open during the first lockdown, and a few activities continued in Maersk Tower. But many of us were sent home for no reason.«

Stealing from the next generation

Anja C. Andersen criticises more than just the corona restrictions.

Although What should we do about science? is based on the pandemic, one of the book’s points is that research – or rather free basic research – has been denied the status and the resources it deserves for a long time.

In the spring reopening plan, universities were in phase four along with nightclubs. What the hell is that about?

Anja C. Andersen, professor and astrophysicist

According to Anja C. Andersen, the symptoms of this include a shift in the balance between public and private funds, a glut of young researchers with temporary contracts, increased political control of research funding and an incentive regime that forces researcher to constantly publish articles and apply for funds instead of immersing themselves in basic research.

She summarises:

»We have become less ambitious about research.«

Most people know Anja C. Andersen as an enthusiastic communicator of knowledge about planets and stars, but with What should we do about science? she takes on a new role: as a political commentator.

Her most recent book is more a manifesto than a textbook. In it, Anja C. Andersen uses the term »generational theft« to describe what she considers to be a long-standing, unambitious research policy characterised by cutbacks, failed visions and increasing political control of  research funding.

She acknowledges that she does not have the solutions to many of the problems she outlines.

But one thing is clear: She wants politicians to have a long-term mindset and focus on free basic research, as she considers this a necessity for solving the problems of the future.

It is very much about money.

Anja C. Andersen gives this example: When the astronomer Tycho Brahe lived at the University of Copenhagen, he received one per cent of Denmark’s money supply.

Today, the entire public research budget accounts for the same share of the GDP. One percent.

»Of course, you don’t need to give one percent of the GDP to a single researcher. My point is that if you don’t prioritise basic research at all, it will impact our future. We can’t afford not to invest in basic research. The question is whether it should be half a per cent or three per cent,« she says.

Horse manure is not our biggest problem

According to Anja C. Andersen, basic research is essential because we cannot predict the future. If you are in doubt, just watch a science fiction movie from the 60s or 70s, she says.

»Or read 1984 and Brave New World. Some things turned out as the authors feared, some are even worse, but many of them never happened and are completely irrelevant today,« she says and gives another example:

»A hundred years ago, the City of Copenhagen compiled several reports about the challenge of the increasing amount of horse manure in the streets. That is not exactly our biggest problem today.«

Every time you establish a research environment, you know it will be destroyed at some point, like a sand castle built too close to the sea.

Anja C. Andersen, professor and astrophysicist

It is hard to predict where new breakthroughs are going to come from.

In her new book, Anja C. Andersen gives several examples of solid basic research that has unintentionally led to crucial discoveries.

She mentions the researcher Willi Dansgaard, who, like Andersen, lived at the Niels Bohr Institute and carried out the first ice core drilling in Greenland in the early 1950s. Back then, climate change was not the reason for drilling, but his method, isotope measurements, is crucial to climate research today.

The measurements enable us to analyse the climate of the past and make predictions about climate change in the future .

»He is dead now, so he cannot defend himself. But I’m not certain he ever fully understood the bigger picture and realised how important the ice core drilling would be.«

»No Minister of Science could have imagined that. None of us could, for that matter.«

People do not believe the Earth is flat

The corona crisis is actually another example.

Although it may seem that visionary scientists conjured up revolutionary vaccines at a moment’s notice, the situation is actually more complex. Many years of prior research laid the foundation for these experiments and for the rapid approval of the RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, which are being given to thousands of Danes.

Anja C. Andersen hopes that the general public  will understand this, she says.

»Of course we must have strategic research and development, but there must be something to develop from. Someone has to invent and manufacture bricks before anyone can build a house. Basic research is like thinking about how to make a better brick. You have to make space for that.«

In this way, the corona crisis may boost the status of science in society.

According to Anja C. Andersen, it is an opportunity to increase the public’s understanding of the nature of research. Not because the vaccines were produced and approved at record speed, but because it could not be achieved even faster.

»I think a lot of people are disappointed. A year later, they are still in lockdown. Why has the problem not been solved yet, if the research is as amazing as I say it is?«

»My aim with this book is to stir up research communication. Not just dissemination, where I hold a monologue about some discoveries, but a conversation about what research can and cannot do.«

»We need to change the framework conditions for research if we feel it is not doing enough. I think people understand that now,« says Anja C. Andersen, who describes science as »a shared social project,« at the end of her new book.

However, the general public does not seem to be preoccupied with the value of basic research.  What can be done to change that?

»I hope my book can be one of many small steps along the way. Also talking to people, telling them what we do, and trusting that they are not idiots. The reason people do not understand the value of basic research is not that they think the Earth is flat. They just haven’t given it much thought. It’s not part of their everyday life.«

»It is fair enough that not everyone is preoccupied by basic research. As long as there are always some people who are.«

The public are not idiots, but one might say that most people are interested in corona research because it quite tangibly relates to their lives in the present, and not many people are interested research policy in general?

»The real problem is that there are not enough researchers in politics. There are simply too few. We need people in power who understand research,« she says, pointing out the Danish Social-Liberal Party research spokesperson, Stinus Lindgreen, as an exception.

»In a way, it is researchers’ own fault. We could take up the gauntlet. But both camps should take steps towards each other.«

Insurance against going broke

How do you convince politicians that it makes sense to spend more money on something that is relatively undefined? To spend significant amounts on scientific work with unknown outcomes?

As Anja C. Andersen says: Politicians also have to find funding for hospitals, schools, police, and the list goes on.

The real problem is that there are not enough researchers in politics. There are simply too few.

Anja C. Andersen, professor and astrophysicist

Policy makers may say that research is fine as it is, but we already know that there are  pressing global crises. The best example is the climate crisis, which undeniably calls for rapid scientific breakthroughs.

This is why politicians have directed a historically large proportion of funding to green research in recent funding allocations. Because the situation is dire.

What would Anja C. Andersen say to them?

»In a way, I agree with them. But it is so important that a certain amount of funding is also allocated to basic research, because that is what secures our future.«

»It’s like having household insurance in case the house burns down. You are willing to pay a few thousand kroner a year, so that you don’t go completely broke if the worst comes to the worst.«

Sand castles dissolving in the waves

It is not just a matter of giving researchers more money. It is also about having more time.

Currently, researchers such as Anja C. Andersen spend a large part of their working week meeting performance targets, applying for external grants with a low success rate, participating in peer reviews and doing administrative tasks.

»A lot of researchers do research in our spare time because our entire calendar is full of the other tasks that are expected of a university employee.«

»There is,« says Anja C. Andersen,« too much control and a general lack of trust.«

Changing that requires a debate about the conditions that researchers are working under at universities today, she says.

But it also requires decision-makers to consider the bigger picture, think more long-term, and give researchers more freedom.

»The political time horizon is four years, maybe eight if you are being optimistic. Basic research takes at least 20 years. The problem is that basic research is so damned hard. It takes a huge amount of time to build up expertise, but it takes no time at all to destroy it.«

»That is the problem with strategic focus areas. It takes a topic that is in the spotlight, and invests a lot of resources into it, and then you get to build a research community for the next 10-15 years. Suddenly there are new strategic focus areas, and the money is transferred over to them. Every time you create a research environment, you know it will be destroyed at some point, like a sand castle built too close to the sea.«

If we fail to invest in basic research, the consequences are obvious, she says:

»The consequence is that solutions will no longer come from Denmark in 20 to 30 years. We will lose the position we have held in research for the past 400 years.«

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