What is a Pioneer Center

What is a Pioneer Center?

The establishment of the Pioneer Centers is an ambitious national undertaking initiated by the Ministry of Higher Education and Science and developed in close cooperation (and co-financing) between the Minister, the Danish National Research Foundation, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Lundbeck Foundation, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the Villum Foundation, and possibly other private foundations, as well as the universities.

The overall framework

The ambition is to attract the very best individual researchers from around the world and to establish two or three co-funded world class research centers that carry out basic research aimed at transformative solutions to major societal challenges.

The Pioneer Centers will be given considerable freedom in terms of their research, financial continuity, and a long-term grant period. Using these resources, the Pioneer Centers, during the grant period, are expected to continuously carry out well-defined, high-risk sub-projects that have a particularly high potential to pioneer the research area at the highest international level.

Subject areas

The Pioneer Centers are intended for all research fields.

A steering committee with representatives from the involved foundations has selected two broad subject areas; artificial intelligence and climate/energy, that, combined, provide an opportunity for all disciplines to be of relevance:

  • Artificial Intelligence

    Description of theme for the Pioneer center initiative: Artificial Intelligence (AI)

    The ambition behind the Pioneer Center initiative is to establish excellent research units that carry out fundamental research aimed at providing transformative solutions to major societal challenges.

    AI has the potential to solve a wide range of societal challenges and will most likely alter parts of our society significantly over the next decades. AI will transform both industries and human lives and interaction, improve health care, reshape the job market, boost growth and environmental sustainability, but also potentially cause challenging transitions, alienation and raise concerns regarding ethics and safeguarding of private data.

    Harvesting the full potential of AI is contingent on research within all fields, on procuring knowledge that will encompass the complexity involved in the vast applications of AI.

    Examples of research fields that will be of importance to meet the current goals for carbon emissions:


    • Theoretical foundations of AI
      • Develop novel, efficient, sophisticated, secure, privacy preserving and ethically sustainable algorithms
      • Artificial intelligence in a systems perspective, learning in interaction with the environment


    • High performance computing for AI applications
      • Data availability, causal relations, uncertainties


    • Robotics and automatization


    • AI for next generation health care
      • Omics technologies, interpretable machine learning, deep learning, precision- and preventive medicine, diagnostics


    • AI for energy and climate data analysis
      • Clean energy materials, energy distribution and consumption, sustainable transport
      • Prediction of climate change and necessary interactions


    • Human-centered AI
      • Integration of human psychology, ethics, behavior, culture, creativity, democratic institutions, business innovations and other human aspects in the application of AI technology
      • AI in politics, private organizations, and the public sector
      • Crisis response (migrations crisis, natural and man-made disasters, disease outbreak)
      • Language/image processing and AI communication
      • AI and security/privacy
      • AI and the future of work and skills

  • Climate/Energy

    Description of theme for the Pioneer center initiative: Climate/Energy


    The ambition behind the Pioneer Center initiative is to establish excellent research units that carry out fundamental research aimed at providing transformative solutions to major societal challenges.

    Our greatest societal challenge is probably that of solving the current impact of energy consumption on the global climate with all the ramifications that has.

    Under the Paris Agreement, the world’s countries are committed to cut climate-warming carbon emissions significantly in order to meet the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal.

    The decarbonization challenges are closely connected to all research areas related to the green transition; these include the production, storage and supply of renewable energy and reuse of materials, economic incentives, regulatory instruments, technology push, and human behavior.

    Examples of research fields that will be of importance to meet the current goals for carbon emissions:

    • Energy storage and transmission
      • New battery and catalysis technologies
      • Synthetic fuels and chemicals
      • Artificial photosynthesis
      • Functional materials with relevance for energy storage and transmission
      • Carbon capture, transportation and storage
      • Reducing the rate of climate change by controlled biological processes


    • Sustainable energy production
      • Wind turbines, solar cells, alternative energy production methods
      • Nuclear power, associated safety and responsible waste handling
      • Biofuels and turning waste into fuels
      • Functional materials with relevance for energy production
      • Efficient conversion of alternatively produced energy into electricity


    • Energy systems
      • Energy supply, planning, infrastructure, migration and mobility, data management
      • Smart grids
      • Energy market models
      • IT based solutions for optimizing energy systems
      • Innovation and optimization of energy storage and conversion capacity of systems based on water


    • Energy and society
      • Mediation of green transition by regulatory instruments and economic incentives
      • Sustainable cities, smart cities
      • Optimizing energy use in food production and industry

    Examples of research fields that will be of importance to understand and counteract human-induced climate change:

    • Climate in the Arctic and in the oceans
    • Effect of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystems
    • Predictions of local and global climate in the light of current and future carbon emissions, including the effect of global feedback mechanisms on the world’s climate

  • Meet the members of the steering committee here

    • Flemming Besenbacher, the chair of the board of the Carlsberg Foundation
    • Jens Kehlet Nørskov, the chair of the board of the Danish National Research Foundation
    • Søren-Peter Olesen, CEO of the Danish National Research Foundation
    • Jan Egebjerg, Senior Vice President, Grants & Prizes, Director of Science at the Lundbeck Foundation
    • Niels Peder Nielsen, Deputy CEO at the Novo Nordisk Foundation
    • Thomas Bjørnholm, Director of Science at the Villum Foundation

Anchoring at Danish universities

Each Pioneer Center must be linked to one or preferably more Danish universities, which, in close cooperation, will form an environment where – in addition to the main objective of levering Danish research environments – the focus is on educating the next generation of top researchers through research-based teaching and initiatives aimed at exceptionally talented students. Thus, to a large extent, the centers are expected to be integrated into the host institutions by, among other things, involving students at the bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. levels.

The center leader/PI

A Pioneer Center will be led by an extraordinarily accomplished scientist and research leader who will be recruited from the global research community.

The center leader/PI must bring together the best Danish research in the field and raise it to the highest international level. The aim is that by doing so, the center leader will establish and develop a genuinely outstanding research environment with both top researchers and students who can form the basis for creating groundbreaking research results and transformative solutions within the fields of AI and/or Climate/Energy.

Implementation of the Pioneer Center initiative

The process for implementation of the initiative is organized in the following steps:

The Danish universities will nominate candidates who will then be evaluated by an international panel of experts appointed by the Minister for Higher Education and Science. The panel will establish a short list of candidates to be presented to the foundations.

The co-financing foundations make the final decision on the awarding of grants based on the short list, the general research plans, the collaboration with the host institution(s), etc. It is up to each of the foundations to decide whether (and who) of the candidates it wishes to co-finance.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Science and the Danish National Research Foundation are contributing a total of approximately 400 million DKK to the initiative, while the private foundations are contributing up to 600 million DKK in total.

The grant period for a Pioneer Center is 13 years at the outset, with periodic visits by advisory boards followed by evaluations with a possibility of extension. The financial framework for each subject area is between 200-500 million DKK. The grant includes indirect project costs, which are of limited size.

The Danish National Research Foundation will manage the initiative on behalf of the foundations.

Further details about the implementation of the initiative can be found in the Implementation model and the related appendices.

Appendices to download

Implementation model to download

Appendices to download