168 junior researchers at AU to politicians: Stop the annual cutbacks on climate and environmental research

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168 junior researchers at Aarhus University are trying to make politicians listen to their concerns about the potential consequences of continuing to implement annual budget cuts of 2%, something which climate and environmental research at AU has been subjected to since 2009. Budget cuts of DKK 70 million are already a reality, but several local politicians are calling for the reallocation contribution on public sector consultancy to be abolished.

2021.05.31 | Trine Marie Vestergaard og Marie Groth Andersen

The Aarhus University department in Foulum, situated east of Viborg, Jutland, is home to much of the university’s research into agricultural, including research into domestic animals, plants, ecology, soil, genetics and technology. Photo: Jesper Rais/AU Photo

In an open letter, 168 junior researchers at Aarhus University have criticised the annual 2% cuts, which climate and environmental research at AU has been subjected to since 2009 and which now, among other things, means that the Faculty of Technical Sciences (TECH) needs to make cuts of DKK 70 million.  

READ MORE: Faculty of Technical Sciences to save DKK 70 million – layoffs unavoidable

The letter has been sent to the Minster for Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen (S), Minister for Climate, Energy and Utilities Dan Jørgensen (S), Minister for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries Rasmus Prehn (S), Minister for the Environment Lea Wermelin (S) and Minister for Finance Nicolai Wammen (S). The letter was also sent to the members of the Parliament’s Education and Research committee, the Environment and Food committee, and the Energy and Utilities committee. In the letter, the researchers asked politicians to stop the cuts and criticised them for ignoring the potential consequences of continuing with this practice. The open letter was published on Tuesday in the newspaper Information (in Danish).

”The annual cuts have to stop! The cuts not only have consequences for the psychological wellbeing of employees at the universities, but they also destroy the possibility to achieve the necessary scientific breakthroughs to bring about the green transition”, the researchers wrote in the letter.

Absurd

Esben Øster Mortensen is a research assistant at the Department of Agroecology in Foulum and together with two colleagues, they penned the open letter. He explained that they hope the letter will make politicians and the public more aware of the necessity to stop the cuts, even though it won’t make a difference to the current cuts being made at the department.

”Our grants have been cut since 2009. And this is continuing year after year without any end in sight. It’s absurd – especially now, when the environment, climate and agriculture take up so much space in public debates and in discussions regarding the green transition,” said Esben Øster Mortensen.

Esben Øster Mortensen added that the researchers are generally given too little time to complete their workload:

”It’s difficult to keep on top of our workload. Especially for the experienced researchers, who are involved with answering inquiries from the authorities. But as the junior researchers, we are also involved and notice that there is less time for the senior researchers to answer these inquiries and less time to teach us how to handle these inquiries ourselves.” 

Consequences for society

Right now, the atmosphere at the departments is affected by the imminent lay-offs. And even though the junior researchers are primarily employed on fixed-term contracts and therefore are not directly affected by the lay-offs, it is still worrying:

”Because of the lay-offs, pressures at work are noticeable even more so. And future prospects in relation to possibilities to extend contracts or to get permanent positions are dwindling.” 

”But our biggest worry actually relates to society – and that Denmark won’t achieve the high goals, which it has agreed to achieve in relation to the environment and climate, with agriculture playing a big role in achieving these goals,” said Esben Øster Mortensen. 

Department heads: Cuts reduce opportunities for the green transition

The junior researchers are not alone in wanting to bring attention to the possible after-effects of cutting millions of kroner at TECH. In the middle of March, the Department Heads of Environmental Science, Agroecology, Animal Science, Food Science, and Bioscience as well as the directors of the Danish Centre for Food and Agriculture (DCA), the Danish Centre for Environment and Energy (DCE), and the Center for Quantitative Genetics and Genomics wrote a debate article for Altinget Forskning (in Danish). In the article, they draw attention to the fact that cuts to research areas relating to the environment, agriculture and food will reduce the possibilities for Denmark to bring about the green transition. 

Among other things the article makes the point that the research and development of Danish technology are linked and that they can contribute to a more sustainable environment and food production, for example. But reducing the funds for research means “significant consequences for this industry – a negative impact for both Danish growth and employment and for the global climate imprint”.

Therefore, in the article, the department heads and centre directors asked “whether Danish politicians who want the green transition to go ahead are aware of the possible after-effects of the long-term 2% cuts to the research-based public operations?”

Politicians visiting Foulum

And it does seem that some of the Danish politicians currently in parliament are aware of these after-effects. Four local members of the Danish parliament visited the Department for Agroecology in Foulum on 29 March to hear more about the cuts, the imminent lay-offs and the researchers’ work to ensure the green transition within Danish society. This was a visit that was instigated by the politicians themselves.

The four politicians were Søren Pape Poulsen (K), Signe Munk (SF), Kristian Pihl Lorentzen (V) and Karin Gaardsted (S). Gaardsted was cited in the newspaper Viborg Stifts Folkeblad as saying that after the visit, she would be in touch with her fellow party member, Finance Minister Nicolai Wammen, to ensure that those at the top levels of government understand that research funds need to be secured for the green transition. 

Changes to the reallocation contribution are not in the pipeline

Karin Gaardsted, who is a deputy member of parliament, and importantly in this context is also a member of the Parliament’s Environment and Food committee and Education and Research committee, has now had the opportunity to have a conversation with the Finance Minister.  

”Right now, changes to the reallocation contribution of 2% are not in the pipeline, but the finance minister expressed to me that he would be open to changes, if with the help of the ministries involved, money can be found and then earmarked, and therefore ensure continued research in the area,” said Karin Gaardsted.  

Personally, she believed that the problem, which both the department heads and researchers at AU have drawn attention to over the past few months, is significant: 

”I understand that it is very difficult for an institute to do its job appropriately and adequately if it’s exposed to persistent cuts – especially at a time, when there’s an expectation that the research environments should deliver answers to questions on the green transition. It really is a paradox,” said Karin Gaardsted.

Supporting parties want to push for abolition

But SF is one of the parties who will put pressure on the government to do away with the reallocation contribution for public sector consultancy. This is according to Signe Munk, who is the climate spokesperson for SF and who was elected for SF to the constituency of West Jutland.

”Basically, it’s very important to stop the annual cuts, because for more than ten years, cuts have been made to the research that provides politicians like us with qualified knowledge, which we need to make informed decisions. And in the situation that we’re in right now – we need qualified knowledge more than anything else,” said Signe Munk.

Since the general election in 2019, SF has insisted on removing the reallocation contribution. It has been removed from the areas of culture and education, and therefore, SF has once again brought the discussion to the table about removing the contribution from public sector consultancy.

Signe Munk explained that the obvious thing to do would be to include the suggestions in the upcoming negotiations on the government’s agriculture proposal, because she believes that further developments are needed with the solutions implemented within the area of agriculture.

”Later this year we also need to finalise negotiations on the finance bill. The government hasn’t yet said that the reallocation contribution will be abolished, but luckily, politics is the kind of thing that requires a majority. Therefore, I have to go out and explain why it’s important that the reallocation contribution should be abolished,” said Signe Munk and added that it’s unlikely that the changes can be made this year, which means the earliest it will be is from 2022.

‘All wrong’

Kristian Pihl Lorentzen (V), who like Karin Gaardsted and Signe Munk was elected to the constituency of West Jutland and who is transport spokesperson for Venstre, also attended the meeting in Foulum. He described the situation in which the research environment in Foulum is subjected to cuts as ‘all wrong’, and according to him there ought to be more research similar to that being done in Foulum. 

”Visiting the researchers in Foulum had a real impact on me. We’re in a situation where it’s essential that we find new approaches to Danish agriculture, and then there are budget cuts being made in Foulum. Instead, we should be ramping up the research in Foulum, and this also means getting rid of the reallocation contribution,” said Kristian Pihl Lorentzen.

Last Wednesday the government presented its climate plans for agriculture. In relation to that, Kristian Pihl Lorentzen explained that Venstre will come to the negotiating table with a request that ’large amounts of funding to the tune of DKK 100 million’ be set aside to create a national power centre for sustainable agriculture in Foulum.

Kristian Pihl Lorentzen discussed only removing the cuts from the departments in Foulum, even though the cuts also impact other areas within public sector consultancy, for example the Department of Environmental Science located in Roskilde. He explained that this is because his primary focus is on agriculture.

Lay-offs just around the corner

Meanwhile, there is still no prospect of the cuts ending – or new sources of funding being found. And in the meantime, lay-offs from the research environments continue. 

There is still no confirmation on the final number of lay-offs. But last March, many departments mentioned possible figures for how many they believed might be let go. Head of Department for Bioscience Ole Hertel said he anticipated that 15-20 positions would be lost. And at the Department of Agroecology, Head of Department Jørgen E. Olesen said that the cuts would result in letting go about 8-10 staff members.  

READ MORE: Budget cuts at the Faculty of Technical Sciences

On Monday, 26 April, staff members were told how significant the cuts would be after the severance agreements. On 17 May, Aarhus University informed the members of staff directly affected by the cuts at TECH. This will be followed by a party hearing, and in week 25, all staff members from the affected departments will be informed of the final numbers of lay-offs.

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