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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Higher Education Minister Morten Østergaard's speech at the annual meeting for the Danish National Research Foundation 16 December 2013 in Copenhagen.

Check against delivery.

The past, present and future of DNRF

Ladies and gentlemen, friends of science

It is a pleasure to take part in this annual meeting.

Thank you very much to the International Evaluation Panel for your comprehensive work.

Now when we have heard the conclusion and the recommendations from Dr. Wilhem Krull and the perspective for the Danish National Research Foundation from Professor Liselotte Højgaard.

I would like to limit myself to talk about three things concerning the National Research Foundation; the past, the present and the future. And all that in less than 15 minutes...

Because I have to hurry back to the Ministry to look for the DKK 5 billion that the Chair/Liselotte just recommended that I should find for the Foundation.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

But let’s start with the past. Two years ago I held my first public speech as a minister.

It was in fact at the 20th anniversary for the Danish National Research Foundation - just a few weeks after the new Government took office.

It was a great anniversary. And it was a good opportunity for me to get more insight about the Foundation.

I was very impressed with the Foundation and the results from the Centres of Excellence. In fact I was so impressed that I thought; what is my task going to be here? The Danish National Research Foundation is doing an excellent job.

But ministers want to fix things. Identify problems. Find solutions. Save the world – and win the next election. Here, I couldn’t figure out what was broken. And if it ain’t broke – don’t fix it, as they said.

Brave and far-sighted decisions

It is rare that politicians are credited for making brave and far-sighted decisions. And some would say it is equally rare that politicians actually succeed in being far-sighted.

But I believe that this is the case with the Danish National Research Foundation.

The objective of the Foundation is to promote and stimulate excellent research at the highest international level at the frontiers of all scientific fields.

And from the beginning in 1991 it has been guided by a high-trust, long-term funding model.This has given Denmark an advantage compared to the rest of Europe, where similar initiatives have been launched much later.

The foundation was last evaluated in 2003. Now it was due for yet another evaluation.

DNRF has remarkable results

So let’s continue to the present.

It is perhaps not surprising that I am very pleased with the evaluation. It shows that Denmark has a high-performing science system. It demonstrates that we can compete with the best in the world.

And it recognises the Danish National Research Foundation as at the core of the Danish research and innovation system.

Some of the remarkable results have been mentioned – but allow me to name a few highlights from what the Chair called the magnificent mile:

The performance of the Centres of Excellence are outstanding. In the ‘multidisciplinary journal’ category for instance, publications funded by the Foundation perform at the absolute highest level equal to MIT and Stanford University and slightly above Harvard University.

The Centres of Excellence are also good at attracting talents. One in two scientists affiliated to a Centre have been associated with at least one highly cited publication within three years of their first identified publication.

And what might surprise some; the Centres of Excellences were granted 20 patents between 2007 and 2011 and in the same period 7 spin-off companies were founded.

This shows that basic or curiosity-driven research definitely contributes to innovation and commercialisation.

There are strong links between ground-breaking research and finding solutions for societal challenges. Excellent research is an excellent basis for innovation.

More women in science

A unique position, Outstanding achievements, deeply impressed with the performance.

Unfortunately this is not the headlines of a newspaper celebrating the results of the Danish Government. Not yet anyway. It is from the International Evaluation Panel.

You almost need a microscope if you are trying to find negative adjectives in the evaluation. If the Danish National Research Foundation was a football team, it would be Barcelona.

Having said that - of course there are things that can be better, which is also mentioned in the evaluation. Even Barcelona can improve.

Let me shortly comment on one of the problems: female researchers are not proportionally represented among the DNRF grant holders and the Center leaders.

As mentioned by Liselotte, the Foundation is already looking into this issue. The government is also aware of the problem.

As part of the research reserve in 2014 for interdisciplinary research initiatives DKK 70 million has been allocated the programme YDUN (Younger women Devoted to a university career).

It is The Danish Council for Independent Research that is responsible for YDUN. The aim is to strengthen talent utilisation in Danish research by promoting a more balanced gender composition of the research environments in Denmark. We need to utilise the full potential of all researchers.

I look forward to continue the dialogue on this issue. And I look forward to the Annual Meeting next year where I can understand that women in science will be the leading theme.

An essay from Professor Braben

At the 20th anniversary for the Foundation two years ago I compared insurance to research in my speech.

Originally, it was the sale of the State Institution for Life Insurance back in 1990 that became the financial cornerstone for the Danish National Research Foundation.

I stated in the speech that:

Insurance is borne by a fear of the unknown – and tries to minimise costs.
Research is borne by curiosity about the unknown – and tries to maximise benefit.

That comparison led to an email with an essay from Donald W. Braben, a professor from University College London - who was among the audience.

Professor Braben’s essay emphasised that risks are fundamental conditions of exploring the unknown. I replied that I agreed and that the consequence of this condition is to accept the risk of failure.

In fact the essay from professor Braben is very similar to the recommendation from the Evaluation Panel – and which I share:

It is essential that the Foundation continues to stay open to new and risky ideas. The success of the Foundation should not lead to stagnation and too much precaution. And my approach is that I want to meet the research community with trust instead of control.

The future of DNRF

As emphasised earlier by the Chairman of the evaluation panel, the recommendations for the future of the Foundation addressed respectively the government, the Foundation itself and the Danish Research System.

Let me just emphasise and comment on two of the main recommendations to the government.

Firstly; the Danish parliament is advised to re-fund the Foundation.

My answer is: Under the current financial framework the last 10-year Centers will be established in 2016/17 before the capital of the Foundation will be spent in 2026.

Of course we need the discussion sooner than that, but I have to apologise for not bringing a suitcase full of money with me today.

Secondly: The evaluation panel recommends that the Danish National Research Foundation should remain as an independent foundation and not be put together with the Independent Research Council or any other organisations in the Danish funding system.

My answer is: I do not have any plans in that direction what so ever.

I could add on to my catch phrase from the beginning: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it - and don’t mix it.

I would like to thank the evaluation panel for the thorough work. It will contribute to the further development of Danish research.

I am looking forward to the debate.

Thank you.

last modified Dec 17, 2013