Research reforms anger scientists

July 14, 1995

Danish ministry of research proposals for a tripartite research policy structure have angered the university and research community.

Bent Schmidt-Nielsen, rector of the Royal Danish Veterinary and Agricultural University, said that they "are not a sufficient basis for preparatory work for legislation about such an important area as the research advisory function in Denmark", and should be withdrawn.

The University of Copenhagen has also rejected the proposals, which are included in a white paper from a committee looking into ways of streamlining the advisory structure in Denmark's research and development following a critical OECD review of its science, technology and innovation policies.

The existing research policy structure, which dates from 1989, has a research policy council, six 15-member state research policy councils (for the natural sciences, agriculture and veterinary medicine; the technical sciences; the social sciences; the arts and health sciences); an industrial development council, and advisory and secretariat functions under a number of ministries.

There are 62 sources of public grants and the 1995 budget for research is 638 billion krone (Pounds 730 million).

The OECD reviewers feared that this complicated system not only wasted resources but also prevented some important projects receiving sufficient grants. They found it difficult to see how the system could function effectively.

The recommendations would replace the existing system with a national research policy council, state research policy councils and research committees.

The national Danish Council for Research Policy would co-ordinate research and advise the minister and, through him, the government and parliament about grants, policy, and national strategy.

There would be three 15-member state research policy councils for basic research, with advisory and funding responsibilities for their areas of interest (natural sciences and technology; bio and health sciences; the arts and the social sciences).

An unspecified number of committees would advise the various ministries about private sector research within the realm of the individual ministry.

Future research strategy would be compiled on the basis of plans from the state research policy councils and the research committees, and the research advisory system will be involved in the distribution of the available public funds.

The ministry of research committee, under permanent secretary Knud Larsen, also proposed an evaluation programme for Danish research, seen in an international context, with regard to quality and relevance.

Several members of the existing state research policy councils said the proposed changes would create a system that would not only complicate the advisory and grant administration functions, rather than simplify them, but also weaken independent research while strengthening so-called sectoral research programmes. There is also concern that the wider areas of interest and the fewer members of the state research policy councils under the proposed structure would result in a weakening of individual subjects.

Rector Kjeld Mollgaard of the University of Copenhagen said the proposal that members of the Danish Council for Research Policy should be appointed for a four-year period, with no reappointment for the next period, was "futile".

According to the white paper, four years was chosen to ensure that "members of the council, who can be expected to have great influence on Denmark's research policy, can act for a longer period - but the period is short enough to prevent the advisory function becoming too personalised".

Professor Mollgaard also says that the research advisory function covers basic research at universities (the realm of the ministry of research), but not the educational aspects, which come under the ministry of education. To include evaluation of basic research in the advisory work will not promote new methods.

The veterinary and agricultural university states that the proposal to separate basic research, strategic research and applied research, as proposed, would be a clear deterioration of the research advisory function.

"The white paper seems almost to have put an equals sign between basic research and university research, and between strategic/ applied research and sectoral research," the university says in its submission. But recently published statistics for public sector research indicate that 61 per cent of research and development at Danish universities taken together is basic research, 30 per cent is applied research and 9 per cent is development work - applied research varies from 14 per cent in the natural sciences to 58 per cent in the technical sciences.

Mr Schmidt-Nielsen said that the ministry of research committee "had perhaps been under pressure to produce a structure" which the Royal Danish Veterinary and Agricultural University and Copenhagen University strongly advised should not be implemented.

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