ANALYSIS: Why are Denmark’s politicians criticising university researchers?

ANALYSIS: Why are Denmark's politicians criticising university researchers?
Populist politicians have singled out courses at Copenhagen Business School (CBS) for following a so-called 'woke' agenda. Photo: Bjarke MacCarthy/CBS
The Danish parliament has recently adopted a controversial text asking universities to ensure that "politics is not disguised as science". The Local's contributor Sophie Standen examines why Denmark's politicians are criticising university researchers.

What has happened? 

On the 1st of June, a majority in the Danish parliament adopted a written declaration that aimed to combat ‘excessive activism in certain humanities and social science research environments’.

The initial debate was led by Morten Messerschmidt from the Danish People’s Party (DF) and Henrik Dahl from Liberal Alliance (LA). The declaration was then voted through, with all of the major parties in favour, including the governing Social Democratic party.

What does the controversial declaration say? 

The declaration stated that the Danish parliament expects that university managements will ensure the self-regulation of scientific research, so that ‘politics is not disguised as science’.

However, it also asserted that Danish parliament has no right to determine the method or topic of research in Danish universities, and stressed the importance of free and critical debate in the research community.

Who is upset by it? 

The adoption of this position by Danish parliament has proven extremely controversial for many academics and researchers, with over 3,200 Danish and international researchers signing an open letter denouncing the stance adopted by the Danish government.

The authors of the letter stated that ‘academic freedom is under increasing attack’, and described the developments as ‘highly troubling’.

Furthermore, in another open letter to the Minister for Higher Education and Science, Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen, published in the Politiken newspaper, 262 Danish university researchers complained that they were facing increasing occurrences of personal intimidation and harassment due their research.

What is concerning university researchers and professors? 

Professor Lisa Ann Richey, a professor at Copenhagen Business School, told The Local that the parliament’s move was “illiberal” as “it doesn’t support freedom”. 

Richey, who has been a professor in Denmark for more than 20 years, was one of co-organisers of the open letter, and a co-signatory of the letter published in Politiken.

“I am one of the international recruits who finds the Danish research environment a great place to work,” she said. “We have a strong university system and good research environments. One of the things we are risking here is that reputation, and also the possibility of recruiting internationally.”

She said that in her opinion, academia in Denmark was self-policing due to the exhaustive peer-review process and oversight by university authorities. 

“There are lots of checks and balances within academia, and sometimes it doesn’t seem like that because they [the politicians] have no idea how many evaluations we go through,” she said. “We have peer reviews, student reviews, and university assessments to ensure quality in research.” 

Is there a populist campaign behind the statement? 

Richey complained that long before the parliamentary statement, prominent populist politicians “came out on social media calling out particular courses”. 

“They did this to a course I taught in, saying now even CBS has become part of this ‘woke agenda’,” she complained. “This statement about politics dressed up as science, it’s meant to intimidate. We need university leadership to support us and we need everyone to recognise that this is a threat towards academic freedom and also to make sure that we don’t expose individuals”

Anders Bjarklev, the rector of the Danish Technical University (DTU), and president of the rector’s college for Danish universities, echoed this sentiment. Writing on social media, he has called the position adopted by parliament, ‘an attack on research freedom’. 

“When subjects are singled out by politicians, such as gender studies or post-colonial studies, then academics get worried because much of our funding is from the government,” he told The Local. 

“I am also worried that academics will be scared to take part or publish research in these subjects”.  As rector of DTU, he says he is “not sure what we could do differently”, as academics at the university “always want to ensure the highest quality standard of research”.

What has the government said to defend itself? 

In an interview with the Politiken newspaper, Bjørn Brandenborg, the Social Democrat’s spokesperson for higher education and science, insisted that despite the statement, there was “no general distrust of universities” on the part of the government. 

“The Danish parliament has a right, like all other citizens, to have an opinion on research results”, he continued, while stressing that “the Danish parliament will not become involved in decisions over what is researched in Danish universities”.

In his view, he said, the text voted on by the parliament was “completely unproblematic”, as  “all it says is that universities should take responsibility for the quality of their research”.

This adopted stance by the Danish government has shaken the arms-length principle of trust between Danish research institutions and the Danish government. Many have denounced the politicians who have singled out specific researchers on social media as examples of political activism within research in Denmark.

In a statement to Politiken, the minister responsible for Higher Education and Science in Denmark, Ane Halsboe-Jørgenson, remarked that the 3,241 researchers that had signed the open letter had “reached the wrong conclusion” about the adopted declaration.

She insisted that the Danish government is “fighting for research freedom”, while also remarking that she thinks “we politicians must stay far away from judging individuals and individual research areas”.

What will happen next? 

For Professor Lisa Ann Richey, “now, when major political parties are part of this, making a ‘non-problem’ a problem, then it’s really time that we [academics] have to respond.”

“Our work is important and it is not acceptable behaviour to try and bully individual researchers and to police research environments,” she continued. “This is something that will be moving forward now that universities have spoken out officially”. 


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