Søren Pind: Researchers are responsible for resisting intimidation

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Researchers who feel that their academic integrity or freedom of research are under threat should not expect much sympathy from Søren Pind, Danish minister for higher education and science. Pind believes that responsibility for resisting any attempt to compromise their intellectual freedom rests with the researchers themselves. In fact, this is an ethical imperative in a country with academic freedom, asserts Pind.

05.02.2018

The ‘agricultural package’ controversy in brief 

In November 2017, former AU researcher Bjørn Molt Petersen published a report financed by the Danish Society for Nature Conservation. In the report, Petersen criticises a central model (NLES4) used by AU researchers to model the effects of the changes in environmental law contained in the agricultural package on the aquatic environment in Denmark. In other words, he questioned the scientific validity of the very foundation of the agricultural package. 

A number of AU researchers subsequently expressed support for parts of Petersen’s critique in the media.

But after an emergency meeting in Dean Niels Christian Nielsen’s office – a meeting called with 12 hours’ notice – there was silence.  In the meeting summons, Nielsen wrote:

“We have to fight for Aarhus University. And it doesn’t look good.”

Later, in a mail acknowledging responses to his summons, he wrote: “...(T)here is a lot at stake. This is about our scientific expertise, our credibility, and of course our ability to win the competitive tender is at stake – there are many who would like to see us hamstrung in that connection.”

After the meeting, the only researcher to speak on behalf of the AU researchers was Jørgen E. Olesen, a professor of agroecology. And Aarhus University immediately began work on a memo. A few days later, the memo was sent to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark by the rector, just before Minister for Environment and Food Esben Lunde Larsen (Liberal Party) was to participate in an open consultation about the affair in the Environment and Food Committee. In the memo, the AU researchers defend their original report submitted to the ministry, including the calculations on which the agricultural package was based.

Berlingske, followed by a number of other news outlets, has raised the question of whether the researchers were gagged by management, in addition to whether the executive management at AU was subjected to political pressure by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, which the rector has denied, most recently in an interview on DR2 Deadline which aired on Thursday 25 January. 


Aarhus University’s executive management corresponded with the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark immediately after the university received massive criticism for the methods AU researchers used to calculate nitrogen emissions in the ‘agricultural package’ approved by the government in 2015. Pind does not find this exceptionable.

“I think a responsible management team has an obligation to respond when there are serious criticisms of the scientific advice the institution has provided to a government agency. It’s the responsibility of management to determine the facts of the case. I would have done the same. And researchers also need to be robust enough not to allow themselves to be intimidated in that kind of situation. We have academic freedom in Denmark.”    

Pind also thinks that there’s very little substance in an article published in the national newspaper Berlingske back in November, in which the scientist Bjørn Molt Petersen criticised the NLS4 calculation model in strong terms. AU researchers used the NLS4 model to arrive at the calculations they submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark in connection with the agricultural package. 

“I think it’s an extremely one-sided account which is based on a former employee of Aarhus University who was paid by the Danish Society for Nature Conservation to present a particular version of things.”    

If you're being intimidated, then say so

The minister for higher education and science also thinks that how researchers react to criticisms of their academic integrity – such as Petersen’s critique in the Berlingske article – is another story.

“And one thing that struck me here was that they made the very wise move of sitting down together and agreeing on where they stand. That’s very wise, instead of sending a lot of mixed messages.” 

Here the minister is referring to the emergency meeting at his office called by Niels Christian Nielsen, dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology the morning after Berlingske had published the article. Several AU researchers had made public statements about Petersen’s critique before the meeting. But afterwards, Professor Jørgen E. Olsen spoke on their behalf.

None of us knows what took place at the meeting. Which means we don’t know whether the participants were actually in agreement. Or whether some of them felt that they were being pressured into something...?

“My approach to things – in part because I’ve been involved in so many controversies myself – is that human beings are ethically bound to stand forth and tell the truth as they see it. Being intimidated is no way to respond. And if you feel that you’re being intimidated, well then you need to speak out about that. But I haven’t heard anyone say they’ve been intimidated.”    

This is not Hungary

The minister has very little empathy for researchers who might feel conflicted in such a situation, and who might also be afraid to lose their jobs or the prospect of future research projects, or who simply don’t wish to take sides against management in a sensitive affair. When asked whether he is at all concerned about the fact that some AU researchers have been completely absent from the debate since the meeting, Pind replies:

“That’s their business. And that may be what I find most disturbing in this entire debate – the idea that we’re living in an autocratic society, with conditions like in Hungary – because that’s not my impression. Not at all. When I’m in situations where I speak with university employees, they often give me a real beating.”

The minister points out that researchers need to have the maturity to handle the demands of academic life. He leans forward in his chair, raising his voice slightly:

“To put this another way. It also takes some...some...”

Is ‘balls’ the scientific term you’re searching for?

“Yes! You know, sometimes you just have to pull yourself together. This is hard, I realise that. But if all you do is whimper behind close doors, even while you feel so strongly about something... Honestly!? From my many, many years in politics, I’ve gotten used to standing up for a cause, and that might be why I see things this way. But I don’t think it’s particularly honourable to sound off behind closed doors and not have the courage to stand by your opinions out in the open. You have to make a choice.”    

Time pressure is no excuse

The minister for higher education and science was recently summoned to an open consultation in the Education and Research Committee, where the current case from Aarhus University was on the agenda.

At the consultation, you said that government agencies have to be able to trust in the quality of the scientific advice they receive, for example from the universities. And for this reason, the individual institutions should be extremely thorough when performing these services for the government. I imagine you’ll agree that thoroughness also takes time when it comes to research? 

“Or it requires them to include the necessary provisos. And that’s actually what I think is the problem in this case. As far as I understand things, Aarhus University has included the necessary provisos in the scientific advice provided. But that’s not accepted in the version of the story presented in Berlingske.”

But what if this is really primarily a question of time pressure?

“I can certainly imagine that, because we’re currently seeing an insane amount of pressure on government institutions, including advisory institutions, because the tempo at which everything happens in a digitised society has gone berserk. But this is not a condition which is unique to research. It’s a condition we all share. Just ask here on Slotsholmen [island in central Copenhagen where the parliament and other central government institutions are located, ed.]. And everywhere else. This means that provisos become even more important; that you state expressly that you are providing scientific advice within a framework which has some uncertainty.”

In situations involving time pressure –and they do occur, say researchers who provide scientific advice to government – how should management respond, in your opinion? After all, the researchers are hired expressly to provide scientific advice to the government.”

“Exactly! Management always has to be prepared to take responsibility for whether or not it’s possible to perform a given project satisfactorily. And if it’s not, then you have to say that it’s not, because what’s at stake is your academic credibility. And then it’s up to the government to find advisors who are in a position to handle the job. But obviously, if you end up in a situation where objectively speaking, you have to say that the expectations are unrealistic, you have to deal with that. But I haven’t heard anyone say that. I haven’t heard Aarhus University’s executive management say that either.”

What do you mean when you say “and then it’s up to the government to find advisors who are in a position to handle the job”?

“What I mean is that if one advice provider doesn’t consider that they’re in position to do the job, then the government has to find someone who can. After all, the government needs scientific advice.”

But sound advice requires thoroughness. Which takes time. And don’t government agencies need sound advice, as you yourself pointed out during the consultation?

“I don’t deny that. But it’s not a given that no one can do the job.”

No, but it is a given that handling the complexity of the issues involved in many of these scientific advisory projects requires thoroughness, that the researchers have sufficient time. So maybe this is the crux of the problem?

“Quite simply, the crux of the problem is that sometimes things move fast. That’s politics. And then the advisory process has to move fast. So you have to clearly indicate what you can vouch for in the final product you submit. And what you can’t vouch for. In other words, the uncertainty has to be made explicit. I can’t think of another solution. Because otherwise, you’re putting a brake on the political process, and that’s never going to happen. So there’s just an inner reality you have to deal with. And what the institutions have to do is clearly and explicitly draw attention to the uncertainties they see.”    

Should funding be transferred to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science?

Another issues discussed at the recent consultation in the Education and Research Committee was whether the universities are sufficiently independent of the ministries within whose mandates they perform scientific advisory services (the ‘arm’s length principle’). During the discussion, the minister briefly touched on the possibility of awarding scientific advice contracts to institutions outside Denmark, which a number of parties have suggested.

Another way of ensuring the necessary ‘arm’s length’ autonomy would be to transfer the funds for scientific advice projects from the ministries whose mandates include the areas in question to the Ministry of Higher Education and Science. What’s your reaction to that?

“As a matter of principle, I’m not going to comment on that – understood in the sense that the responsibility for defining the mandates of the ministries belongs to the prime minister. And I know a lot of people who’ve put their foot in their mouths over the years by expressing opinions about this. I perform the tasks assigned to me by the prime minister. I don’t ask for more tasks. So I’m simply not going to say anything about that.”

But can’t you reflect on the issue, without overstepping those bounds... What kind of support might that position have?

“I haven’t actually given it much thought. Because that’s not my mandate. And this discussion requires – apropos what you just said about thoroughness – a little more framing. Because it’s clear that there are budgetary considerations, and there are also institutional considerations,” says Pind.

When asked about arguments against the transfer of funding for scientific advice services from the ministries seeking advice within their own field of activity, he says:

“Well, it’s quite simple, isn’t it – the ministries need the best possible scientific advice they can get for the funds they have available. Which is, after all, an excellent principle in all kinds of other situations. And I think it’s necessary to weigh these considerations, taken overall. And policy is what comes out of that.”    

Competition tendering is an interesting experiment

Thus far, the minister for higher education and science has made few public statements about his perspective on the decision to put public sector consultancy to competitive tender.

What is your position on the decision by the minister for environment and food to put public sector consultancy to competitive tender?

“That it’s an interesting experiment, and I look forward to a more detailed clarification and evaluation of what has been effected. And then we’ll have to see what it will come to mean.”    

The senior management team has expressed concern about competitive tendering in this area. Have they also expressed their concern directly to you? 

“Of course I’ve heard concern from the universities. They’re naturally concerned about their research programmes. And for what it can mean for them. And I’m listening to that concern. But on the other hand, with due respect for the universities, I have to say that a lot of these institutions have been extremely preoccupied with themselves during the year we’ve had competitive tendering. And I hope that we can develop a somewhat broader social perspective.  So that the universities don’t perceive themselves as isolated islands, but on the contrary as part of the society we share.”

Translated by Lenore Messick

The ‘agricultural package’ controversy in brief 

In November 2017, former AU researcher Bjørn Molt Petersen published a report financed by the Danish Society for Nature Conservation. In the report, Petersen criticises a central model (NLES4) used by AU researchers to model the effects of the changes in environmental law contained in the agricultural package on the aquatic environment in Denmark. In other words, he questioned the scientific validity of the very foundation of the agricultural package.

A number of AU researchers subsequently expressed support for parts of Petersen’s critique in the media. 

But after an emergency meeting in Dean Niels Christian Nielsen’s office – a meeting called with 12 hours’ notice – there was silence.  In the meeting summons, Nielsen wrote:

“We have to fight for Aarhus University. And it doesn’t look good.”

Later, in a mail acknowledging responses to his summons, he wrote: “...(T)here is a lot at stake. This is about our scientific expertise, our credibility, and of course our ability to win the competitive tender is at stake – there are many who would like to see us hamstrung in that connection.” 

After the meeting, the only researcher to speak on behalf of the AU researchers was Jørgen E. Olesen, a professor of agroecology. And Aarhus University immediately began work on a memo. A few days later, the memo was sent to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark by the rector, just before Minister for Environment and Food Esben Lunde Larsen (Liberal Party) was to participate in an open consultation about the affair in the Environment and Food Committee. In the memo, the AU researchers defend their original report submitted to the ministry, including the calculations on which the agricultural package was based.

Berlingske, followed by a number of other news outlets, has raised the question of whether the researchers were gagged by management, in addition to whether the executive management at AU was subjected to political pressure by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, which the rector has denied, most recently in an interview on DR2 Deadline which aired on Thursday 25 January. 


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Revideret 21.08.2019