Denmark moves from quantity to quality in Nobel prize plan

Echoing the UK, government will also seek to measure the impact of research on society and business

December 24, 2017
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Denmark has launched a new research strategy aimed at winning more Nobel prizes for the country, which includes measures to try to assess the quality and societal impact of research.

While academics and universities have broadly welcomed the changes, they have questioned whether it is ever possible to plan to win a Nobel prize.

The reforms, unveiled in December, are designed to end a system in which a portion of universities’ grants are based on quantitative measures – such as how many papers academics publish in certain journals and the number of PhD students they train – with more qualitative measures.

Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, said that the sector was “basically positive” about the proposals, “but of course it depends on how they will measure quality. We don’t need more red tape.”

The government will convene a panel of experts to decide how to judge research quality over the next 12 to 18 months; one option thought to be on the table is to peg quality-related funding to how much money universities win from competitive research funders, such as the European Research Council, thereby bypassing the need for a major peer-review exercise along the lines of the UK’s research excellence framework.

One concern driving the reforms is that universities have started pressuring academics to write too many papers in order to boost the amount of money that they get from the government – leading, for example, to papers with an exceedingly long list of authors.

Karen Skytte, chief adviser to Akademikerne, which represents groups of Denmark’s graduates, said that publication quantity had been introduced as an incentive about a decade ago, but now it was clear that the government wanted to change course.

The proposals also call for a “multi-annual analysis programme” of the impact of research on society and the economy, echoing the requirement, introduced in 2014, for UK researchers to demonstrate the “impact” of their work as part of the REF.

Asked whether this signalled a move away from curiosity-driven research in Denmark, Mr Langergaard said that “one must be careful about using hard targets on fragile ecosystems such as the research community”.

“Saying that, increased description and documentation of impact need not be a threat to blue-sky research if you notice that impact can take place with a very different time horizon and in different areas,” he continued.

But the Danish government’s hope that the changes will help the country’s scientists to win more Nobel prizes attracted scepticism. Ms Skytte said that the aim was “symbolic…when no new public money is attached to this and the other initiatives in the strategy, you can’t expect much change”.

“We might believe in Santa Claus, but we do not believe you can plan to win Nobel prizes,” said Mr Langergaard. “Though being ambitious is the first step.”

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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