Besenbacher disqualifies himself following case on scathing comments about AU researchers and interfering with the case

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The chairman of the board for the Carlsberg Foundation Flemming Besenbacher has disqualified himself from assessing any applications from the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Aarhus University. This has happened as a consequence of a case, in which Besenbacher accused AU researchers “of shitting on their own doorstep” (“redeskidere”) and also tried to influence the course of the case.

2021.03.03 | Trine Marie Vestergaard & Marie Groth Andersen

Flemming Besenbacher, chairman of the board for the Carlsberg Foundation. Archive photo: Lars Kruse/AU Photo.

About Flemming Besenbacher

Flemming Besenbacher has a long-standing career within research, since his graduation from Aarhus University in 1978. He is a professor and doctor of natural sciences (dr. scient.) at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.

The 68-year-old professor was voted onto the board of the Carlsberg Foundation in 2005 and he became chairman of the board in 2012. His current term on the board continues until 2025.  

In addition to being chairman at the Carlsberg Foundation, he is among other things also the chairman of the board at the Carlsberg brewery and vice chairman of the board at the Museum of National History.

The next time the Carlsberg Foundation has to assess applications from the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Aarhus University, Flemming Besenbacher – the chairman of the board – won’t be sitting round the assessment table.

In a statement, the Foundation’s chairman declared himself permanently disqualified from assessing applications from the Faculty of Natural Sciences. 

”In order to avoid any misunderstandings, I have decided, in consultation with the rest of the board, to declare myself ineligible for assessing any future applications from the Faculty of Natural Sciences at Aarhus University,” wrote Flemming Besenbacher in his statement.

“Redeskidere” and “bavianer”

All of this happened after the newspaper Berlingske Tidende revealed in an article that Flemming Besenbacher had sent mails to the rector of Aarhus University calling AU researchers “redeskidere” (accussing them of shitting on their own doorstep) and “bavianer” (baboons). He also wrote in the mails that the same researchers should have been given a “whack on the head”. 

The no-holds-barred statement came in the wake of the case after the publication of a research article in the prestigious journal Nature. It came to light that a serious error had been made in the analysis of the data, which was the premise on which the article was based, and therefore it was retracted from the journal. The article was written by two researchers from AU. But international researchers as well as researchers at AU questioned the results. Besenbacher aimed his derogatory comments at those researchers from Aarhus University who had questioned the validity of the journal article.

Apologised for the comments

In the statement, Besenbacher apologised for his role in the case: 

”As was communicated earlier, I wish to apologise for my role in the case regarding Aarhus University. I made a mistake sending the emails to people at the university and I want to sincerely apologise for my choice of words in those emails.”  

“I have subsequently discussed the case with my board colleagues and apologised to them. They were justifiably critical of my involvement in and my actions towards the case in question.”

Foundation to change internal processes as a result of the case

Flemming Besenbacher also informed of upcoming changes to how the Foundation conducts internal processes with a view to ensuring that something similar never happens again.

Omnibus contacted the Carlsberg Foundation to find out more about the planned changes. 

The Carlsberg Foundation said that the board deemed it necessary to change some of the internal processes because of what happened with this particular case. However, the board had no further comments regarding how they will organise the internal workflows.


The case in brief

In an article published on 17 January, the newspaper Berlingske described the case about a research article written by two physicists, Jacob Sherson and Klaus Mølmer, at Aarhus University. The research article was published in the prestigious journal Nature in 2016. 

In the journal article, the two researchers concluded among other things that humans can do better than a computer algorithm in a computer game that simulates complex quantum physics problems.  The result caused a great stir, and was also criticised by many including three other researchers from the same department as that of the authors: the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The journal article has since been retracted as a result of the criticism – and not least a testing of the conclusion, where it was shown that there was an error in the data from which the conclusions were drawn. This meant that the researchers’ conclusions were now invalid. 

The persistent criticism from the authors’ colleagues at the department caused dismay with the Carlsberg Foundation chairman Flemming Besenbacher. The Foundation had supported Sherson in the form of a grant to the tune of one million DKK following the publication of the Nature article. In email correspondence between Besenbacher and the two researchers, which Besenbacher forwarded to Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, Besenbacher accused the critics “of shitting on their own doorstep” and called them “baboons”, adding that their actions were “disloyal”.

The case also landed on the table of the Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences Kristian Pedersen. In an email to Flemming Besenbacher, the dean wrote that he was close to “putting duct tape on a few mouths and to tying people’s hands behind their backs until they had thought matters through more carefully”. The dean apologised for his comments in Berlingske, which he himself described as inappropriate. And in a statement published 18 January on medarbejdere.au.dk, he gave an unreserved apology for his comments. Besenbacher apologised in Berlingske for his tone, but maintained that the three critics from AU had behaved in an uncollegial way.

Translated by Marian Flanagan

About Flemming Besenbacher

Flemming Besenbacher has a long-standing career within research, since his graduation from Aarhus University in 1978. He is a professor and doctor of natural sciences (dr. scient.) at the Interdisciplinary Nanoscience Centre (iNANO) and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University.

The 68-year-old professor was voted onto the board of the Carlsberg Foundation in 2005 and he became chairman of the board in 2012. His current term on the board continues until 2025.  

In addition to being chairman at the Carlsberg Foundation, he is among other things also the chairman of the board at the Carlsberg brewery and vice chairman of the board at the Museum of National History.

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