All the Nordic countries have research teams that are very successful within basic research. The working conditions for researchers are very similar in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark, but there are some differences.
“In Finland and Norway, politicians control what researchers do more closely than in Sweden and Denmark,” says Gunnar Öquist, Professor Emeritus at Umeå University.
In various contexts, he has evaluated Nordic research, looked at the prerequisites for research, and at how the research in Nordic countries compares internationally.
“As opposed to the other Nordic countries, Norway has a single large national research council that supports all types of research and innovation.”
Norway need more undirected research
The research council receives funding from several government departments, which state what the money is to be used for.
“To improve research quality and for good reasons, researchers would like more of that money to arrive without address labels. Norway needs more undirected research,” says Gunnar Öquist.
He does not think that Norwegian researchers consider it disadvantageous to not be a member of the EU. The country has agreements that mean Norwegian researchers can apply for research funding from the EU in the same way as researchers in member states.
A few years ago, Gunnar Öquist did an evaluation of the Norwegian research system together with Mats Benner, a professor of research. The report to the Research Council of Norway was entitled “Room for Increased Ambitions”.
“Norway also differs from the other Nordic countries by having a relatively good level of basic funding for the universities. Unfortunately, they do not use the money particularly wisely. They could use the funds to focus more on quality, in order to perform better,” says Gunnar Öquist.
Denmark invests in the best
Danish basic research is doing well in international comparison, and is of the same standard as research at Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge and Stanford. This was shown in an international evaluation conducted for the Danish National Research Foundation in 2013.
Liselotte Højgaard, Professor of Medicine and Technology at the University of Copenhagen, chaired the board of the research foundation during 2013–2018. She says that the Danish National Research Foundation has had an enormous impact since it was established 25 years ago.
“The foundation funds pure basic research of the highest quality, and has a long-term perspective. To date, more than one hundred Centres of Excellence have received support over ten years, and the researchers are given great autonomy meanwhile. The key words are flexibility, freedom and trust,” says Liselotte Højgaard.
She feels that the centres have stimulated and improved the research in other parts of the Danish university system, and also impacted on the attitude towards quality.
“It has made us recognise that some researchers are better than others, and that excellence is what we need in research in order to find solutions to big problems. Quality is important.”
Active leadership and guaranteed pay
Liselotte Højgaard’s views are backed up by Gunnar Öquist, who also participated in the development of the Danish National Research Foundation. He was a member of the board of the foundation for eight years before retiring in 2013.
“I think that people in Sweden, Norway and Finland are more tolerant towards mediocre research than Denmark is. They prioritise excellence.
But their successes can also be due to having a more active academic leadership that invests in recruitment and creating environments,” he emphasises.
“Moreover, besides the governmental research councils and the Danish National Research Foundation, there are major private research funding bodies with lots of money to allocate in Denmark,” says Gunnar Öquist.
A clear difference between Denmark and Sweden exists in the funding of academic services: In Denmark, creating permanent positions based on external resources is not allowed to any large extent.
“Danish universities have the money to pay salaries to their professors and senior lecturers. In Sweden, junior creative researchers must often rely on raising funding for the whole or part of their own salary, side by side with the work of funding and managing a research team,” says Gunnar Öquist.
Great trust in research in the Nordic countries
In terms of the attitude towards both basic research and other research, there are many similarities in the Nordic countries according to Liselotte Højgaard. Northerners have similar values, and both politicians and the general public in the Nordic countries put great trust in researchers and research.
“In Germany and USA, the level of trust in research is low, and there may be many reasons why this is not so here. Our societies are more egalitarian, there is not so much hierarchy, and researchers here have a different attitude. Researchers in the Nordic countries try to be inclusive, to share and communicate so that people understand.”
Liselotte Højgaard is a member of the board of the Danish Crown Prince Frederik’s and Crown Princess Mary’s Foundation, which funds research among other objects, and she thinks the royal houses have a big impact on the general public’s attitude towards research.
“Our royals support various research institutions and are very engaged in research.
People who are not interested in research themselves follow the royals in the media, and are influenced by what they do and say,” says Liselotte Højgaard.
“I think the royals in Norway, Denmark and Sweden do an extremely important job in anchoring research in society.” We might reflect on whether it is a coincidence that countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, United Kingdom, Denmark and Sweden – which are democracies with royal families – are also among the most successful in research.