Basic rules of research apply regardless of who is paying

Debate piece by Rasmus Larsen, Provost, published at

The universities’ role in society has changed fundamentally over the past 50 years. From being primarily nationally anchored institutions of higher education with the main purpose of the research being to support the study programmes, the universities are now far more active contributors in our knowledge society. Research aimed directly at meeting industrial and societal challenges has become an integral part of the institutions of higher education—to the benefit of all parties. The universities’ research environments have grown larger and stronger, while society has benefited from, for example, completely unique technology development.

However, the increased interaction between private players, public authorities, and universities obviously also comes at a price. For how do we establish clear boundaries between researchers and those ordering or funding the research? And how do the universities handle the more complicated finances that follow with this? These are absolutely key questions for today’s university executives.

Let me begin with the last point. Since the end of the 00s, Denmark has met the Barcelona objective of 1 per cent of GDP being spent on funding research. That is very positive and a very important point.

“According to the Danish University Act, researchers must draw their research conclusions according to strictly scientific principles. But once the result has been provided, the orderer can freely use it to draw the political conclusions and implement the measures they want. “

Rasmus Larsen

However—over the same period—the universities’ basic appropriations’ share of total public research funding has declined. For DTU, externally funded research has gone from being a marginal activity to being a main activity. There is nothing wrong with that as such; it is entirely in line with our mission to be for the benefit of society. The problem is that the funding of external projects does not always cover the related costs for the necessary research management, research infrastructure, laboratories, etc. This means that an increasing proportion of the basic appropriation is used to cover these expenses.

In fact, the University still has an obligation to educate engineers for all relevant sectors of the Danish labour market, independently of the external research grants. Therefore, we cannot use our entire basic appropriation to co-fund the activities for which the external parties grant funds. We must insist that foundations and industry that have research conducted at DTU must also pay the costs connected with this research.

Clear boundaries

Another important principle is that each party must stay in its own half of the court. This has especially been the object of focus in connection with scientific advice, but it is also applicable to ordered research. According to the Danish University Act (Universitetsloven), universities and researchers are obliged to comply with good scientific practice and to safeguard freedom of research. They must thus plan and organise the research and draw their research conclusions according to strictly scientific principles. This means that a specific research result cannot be ordered, but once the result has been provided, the orderer or principal can freely use it to draw the political conclusions and implement the measures they want.

It is as simple as that. In practice, however, it is not always so simple to define where one half of the court ends and the other begins. As early as in 2018, DTU therefore published a code for scientific advice with in-depth guidelines for the University’s researchers on how to ensure a high quality in the research conducted in the cross-field between political interests, business interests, and press coverage.

Our code also forms the basis for the course we offer to everyone who is engaged in the provision of scientific advice. And it has proved a useful tool in preventing misunderstandings in our collaboration with authorities, organizations, and companies that want a research-based basis for their decisions or the development of their business.

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