Union reps in open letter: “Building strong research teams takes many, many years, but they can be destroyed in the blink of an eye by obtuse leadership”

In an open letter, four union reps from the Department of Environmental Science criticise the university’s decision to effectuate deep cutbacks on public sector science advice activities immediately. The union reps urge the university to reconsider the timing of the cutbacks and to present a strategy for co-financing these research activities in their open letter, which was sent to Rector Brian Bech Nielsen and Connie Hedegaard, chair of Aarhus University’s board.

[Translate to English:] Institut for Miljøvidenskab i Roskilde er et af de institutter, der står til at blive hårdest ramt i den nyligt varslede sparerunde på Faculty of Technical Sciences (TECH), hvor der skal spares 70 millioner kroner, heraf 8,5 millioner på Institut for Miljøvidenskab. Arkivfoto: Lars Kruse/AU Foto
[Translate to English:] Debatindlægget her er udtryk for skribenternes egen holdning. Redaktionen forbeholder sig ret til at redigere i indkomne indlæg. Send dit indlæg til os på omnibus@au.dk.

On March 1, staff at Tech were informed that the faculty was facing serious financial challenges, the prospect of multi-million kroner cutbacks and associated layoffs. This came as a great surprise to the department’s staff, and we find both the timing and the speed with which the cuts will be implemented incomprehensible. 

The ability to deliver top-class research and science advice will be compromised

The Department of Environmental Science is facing cutbacks amounting to DKK 7.5 million, which corresponds to approximately 11% of the salary budget for permanent staff members at the department. It is thus obvious that cutbacks of this scope will have significant consequences for the future of the department. Along with the major cutbacks that have been announced at the Department of Bioscience, the Department of Animal Science and the Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University’s ability to deliver top-class research and science advice in regard to the environment and the green transition will be compromised.

A shock to everyone

The explanation that has been given for these sudden and very large cutbacks is that Aarhus University has hitherto provided financial support for science advice activities for a number of years to counterbalance the annual 2% cutbacks in the contract with the Ministry of Environment and Food. However, this has never been clear to the department’s staff, as it has not been stated in the financial information that has been presented to the liaison committees, and it has therefore come as a shock to all staff. 

This is intensified by the fact that the dean held out the prospect that the faculty would be given time to increase its competitiveness eighteen months ago. FSU minutes, June 2019: “[The dean] pointed out that it was also necessary to work on the department’s finances and the financial imbalance between the two new faculties. There are still a number of unknown factors that must be clarified, and the division itself will cost money. Management added that it should also be noted that the two new faculties will increase their competitiveness in the long term, and that the division should thus not be viewed as a financial challenge.”

Undermines research areas that are crucial to the green transition

We note that environmental and agricultural research areas at Aarhus University have held a very strong position until now, for example as number 26 in the research area Environment & Ecology on the US News list of 1500 universities in the world – the highest ranking of any research area at Aarhus University. Aarhus University is also number 4 in Scandinavia and number 23 in the EU on the 2021 Times Higher Education World University Rankings within -Geology, environmental, earth & marine sciences’. An external evaluation of the Department of Environmental Science was performed in 2019, and our research in several areas was described as world-leading. At the same time, it is obvious that research and science advice in these areas will be of vital importance in relation to the Danish Parliament’s decisions with regard to the green transition and reduced emissions of greenhouses gasses and pollution in coming years. That Aarhus University has decided to undermine these research areas, which are currently one of the university’s strengths, is incomprehensible and – we fear – will not benefit the university’s reputation. 

The board ignores extensive research activity based on external funding

In addition, we found it extremely discouraging to read in Aarhus University’s coverage of the decision that the board is completely ignoring the fact that in addition to science advice, there is also extensive research activity based on attracting external funding from Danish, EU and international sources (approx. DKK 50 mill in 2020, which is more than the science advice subsidy). In our opinion, that it is possible to win this funding despite tough competition with other strong research groups is an additional testimony to the high level and quality of Aarhus University’s environmental research.

Erodes the very foundation of environmental research at the university

However, the announced cutbacks will make it very difficult to maintain this high level of external research funding, as this depends on the availability of a certain amount of co-financing, due to the moderate overhead rates provided by EU’s research programs and most foundations. In this light, we believe that this decision erodes the principles that constitute the foundation for embedding environmental research in the university, if this research area does not have better opportunities for drawing on the university’s basic funding to co-finance its research activities.

Ill-advised, highly unprofessional and indicative of a lack of due diligence

We have no objections to the decision that the budget for science advice activities must balance, as is the case for all other commissioned activities. However, we find the decision on the part of the senior management team and the board to solve a challenge the university itself has contributed to creating over quite number of years by demanding that the full amount of the budget shortfall be made up immediately ill-advised, highly unprofessional and indicative of a lack of due diligence. 

Research groups can be destroyed in the blink of an eye

From our point of view, it would have been fairer to ask the departments in question to achieve budgetary balance by 2024 or 2025, instead of insisting on balance in 2022, with many layoffs as a result. Developing strong research teams takes many, many years, but they can be destroyed in the blink of an eye by obtuse leadership.

Reconsider the timing

For all these reasons, we encourage the board and the rector to reconsider the timing of the implementation of the announced cutbacks – for example, by directing the departments to implement the cuts gradually, for example one-third  in 2022, 2023 and 2024 respectively. We also call for the university to present a strategy for how research activities can be co-financed in future, in order to enable the departments to continue to maintain important research areas with world-class research, and as a foundation for solid research-based public-sector science advice.

On behalf of the staff of the Department of Environmental Science

Ole-Kenneth Nielsen (TR IDA), Anders Branth Pedersen (TR DJØF), Lise-Lotte Frederiksen (TR HK Laborant) & Kaj Mantzius Hansen (TR DM)

Translated by Lenore Messick