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A new researcher movement with over 100 researchers from universities across Denmark has been formed to promote academic freedom. AU researcher Steen Nepper Larsen, who is one of the board members, expects that the movement will work to get the University Act revised and to change research funding.

Steen Nepper Larsen, associate professor at the Danish School of Education, values the fact that the movement brings researchers together from across different fields. Photo: AU/DPU

"Academic freedom is under pressure". So begins the Gothenburg Manifesto, which forms the basis of the new Movement for a Free Academia  (Forskerbevægelsen). The movement includes over 100 researchers from universities in Denmark and aims to “promote academic freedom”.

The movement was officially founded on 13 May at a conference at Christiansborg and is led by Professor Ole Wæver and former PhD student Maria Toft, both from the University of Copenhagen. It was also these researchers who launched the “Set Research Free” initiative back in 2022 – an initiative that lent its name to the conference this May. At the conference, a board of 14 members was elected, including Steen Nepper Larsen, associate professor at the Danish School of Education (DPU), Stiig Markager, professor at the Department of Ecoscience, and Liv Bjerre, assistant professor at the Department of Political Science – all at AU.

“Today we have planted a seed, bringing together researchers from different fields to foster free thought and the enlightenment of democracy. It won’t grow overnight – we need to cultivate and nurture it. We need to work on building a democratic structure that ensures that all researchers can participate and be represented. At the same time, we need to continue working on the political agendas discussed today and in recent months by the research spokespersons (such as revising the University Act and launching initiatives to protect vulnerable groups),” wrote the Movement for a Free Academia in a statement on 13 May.


Associate professor at DPU Steen Nepper Larsen emphasises that the movement will have its first board meeting in June, so for the time being he is speaking on his own behalf.

He has been engaged in the conversation about freedom of research and the role of universities for many years. He has, among other things, written opinion pieces on the topic and a preface for the Danish translation of a similar manifesto from the University of Aberdeen in 2016 by Professor Tim Ingold. He has also written an article for the Danish Yearbook of Philosophy 2019 about philosopher Jacques Derrida’s text on the unconditional universe, in which Derrida argues that a university is conditioned by one thing: being able to ask radical questions where there are no answers. Steen Nepper Larsen explains that this is the essence of the movement, which is radically opposed to performance management, a financial focus, and a labour market focus. Steen Nepper Larsen is against the top-down management of Danish universities.

He highlights a number of areas in which politicians at Christiansborg need to listen.

“The political system in Denmark is cutting funding for basic research, which is why private funds are granting more money to experimental and interesting research. There's nothing wrong with that, but they have private interests. The whole issue of financing is problematic. Another problem is that you have to be incredibly strategic in order to get research funding these days. You have to fit into a framework that the funding organisations can recognise. That's a problem, because research is in essence innovative and experimental. If you have to explain the answer to a research question and the usefulness of an idea before testing it, we’ll end up with some very calculated and risk averse researchers in Denmark,” says Steen Nepper Larsen.


The movement is also critical of the University Act from 2003. In 2021, the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters wrote a white paper in which they recommended that the Act be revised and, in 2023, the Danish Research and Innovation Policy Council published a report on the University Act to mark its twentieth anniversary. The report concluded that the Act has been successful strengthening the relationship between universities and the society around them, but that it has also challenged the internal governance and management of universities, and that researchers’ freedom of research is under pressure.

“I think we will be asking for the act to be revised. There are different opinions on it, but the researchers and lecturers who took part in our conference certainly showed little enthusiasm for the University Act, with its external boards, strategic research portfolios and Helge Sander’s slogan ‘from research to revenue’ (‘fra forskning til faktura’),” says Steen Nepper Larsen.

Stinus Lindgreen, research spokesperson for the Social Liberal Party hosted the conference. He participated in a panel debate with the research spokespersons for the Moderates, the Red-Green Alliance and the Liberal Party, during which researchers could question politicians.

According to Steen Nepper Larsen, many of them seemed willing to open up a discussion about the University Act.


Steen Nepper Larsen also mentions that the group will work to ensure that researchers are not forced to compromise their freedom of research. Specifically, he mentions the risk that researchers are afraid to publish their research because it may conflict with interests higher up in the system. The movement also looks at the precariousness of academia and how to provide "more care" for the next generation of researchers.

“A fourth semester student asked the politicians ‘how young people like us can ever become free researchers when we are increasingly taught in modules and all criteria are increasingly embedded in learning outcomes’. It was a great question, and the politicians didn’t really give a convincing answer."

Steen Nepper Larsen acknowledges that is has been difficult to get the politicians to commit to anything specific. They also refused to support the movement financially.  

"They weren't offering us any money, that's for sure. We will have to start this researcher movement from below and on our own. We need to influence politicians and advocate for things such as increased funding for basic research and more job security,” he says.


Steen Nepper Larsen values the fact that the movement brings researchers together from across different fields. The movement breaks our silo mentality, he explains.

“We have people from DTU working alongside humanists, economists, political scientists and philosophers. It’s very encouraging to see how everyone comes together. We have professors, emeritus professors and Bachelor’s students sitting side by side. It’s great that the movement can facilitate a debate across all ages, fields, institutions, and genders.


Stinus Lindgreen from the Social Liberal Party supports the movement and considers it a strength that researchers will have a common voice. He agrees with the movement on several points. He is also interested in revising the University Act and will put it forward as a question to the Minister for Higher Education and Science Christina Egelund.

"I've wanted to look at it for a long time. After the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters’ white paper in 2021, I asked the minister at the time – Jesper Petersen – what he thought about it and what we should do, but nothing ever really happened. We believe the act should be revised. It was introduced a long time ago – with good intentions – and now we need to consider whether it’s still fulfilling its purpose or whether it should be updated. It might not be necessary to make changes, but we need to take a look at it,” says Stinus Lindgreen.

He is also willing to look at research funding. The Social Liberal Party wants to give 1.5 per cent of GDP to research, compared with the 1 per cent that is currently given. He agrees with Steen Nepper Larsen that it’s problematic that private funds are responsible for funding such a large part of research in Denmark. At the same time, he believes that more public research funding is necessary but with as little as possible political influence on what type of research is conducted.

“I think we should spend more money on non-earmarked research. We shouldn’t pretend to know what to research,” says Stinus Lindgreen.

The research reserve funds for 2024 amount to DKK 4.2 billion. The fund is part of the public funding for universities that the politicians get to allocate. Stinus Lindgreen wants to give some of this money to the universities for basic funds and intends to ask the minister about this as well.