17. March 2021

Peder Olesen Larsen 1934-2021: A portrait of the DNRF founder and his influence on Danish research


Peder Olesen Larsen 1934-2021
The Danish National Research Foundation
The start of 30 years of excellent Danish research performance
From an ugly duckling to a beautiful swan

by Klaus Bock and Thomas Sinkjær

Peder Olesen Larsen.

With the death of Peder Olesen Larsen, Danish research has lost one of its strongest supporters. He was a leading organizer of the Danish research system during the 1980s and 1990s; in particular, he was the driving force behind the establishment of the Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF).

During the 1980s the Danish government launched a long series of new initiatives to support Danish research groups. These were both top-down initiatives, such as the Biotech programs I and II and the Material Science and Technology Development program, and bottom-up support, such as “super-professors,” then around 1990, the proposal to establish the Danish National Research Foundation. The latter two ideas were established under Bertel Haarder, minister for education, a post that, at that time, included responsibility for research and development in Denmark.

The DNRF was established after the privatization, in 1990, of the public insurance company the State Institution for Life Insurance.  The proceeds from this transaction, amounting to 2.0 billion DKK, were used to provide an independent trust fund to support the DNRF in order to keep it unaffected by the government’s yearly budget negotiations.

The law behind the DNRF was, by and large, formulated by Peder Olesen Larsen when he was director of the Research Agency at the Ministry of Education and was approved by parliament on October 3, 1991. Soon thereafter, Olesen Larsen took office as the first board chair and also the first director of the foundation. Olesen Larsen initiated the establishment of the foundation in collaboration with the first appointed board of trustees, comprising Danish and internationally recognized researchers. Olesen Larsen started by visiting all research institutions in Denmark to discover what opportunities such a new foundation could offer to the Danish scientific community.

The result of these investigations was the first call for Centers of Excellence (CoEs) in 1992. After a thorough examination by international peers and by the board, 23 CoEs were established during 1993 and 1994 in all fields of science for a five-year period, committing about 825 million DKK. About 150 million DKK was allocated to other activities such as research schools and register-based research initiatives. Of the 23 COEs, 16 were extended for another five years after a comprehensive midterm evaluation. The total grants to individual centers ranged between about 18 million and 173 million DKK, almost a factor of 10 in respect to the requirements of the different domains of science.

All CoEs in their set-ups favored what Olesen Larsen considered of paramount importance as a framework for creating impactful research. This included significant and flexible long-term funding, with distinct responsibilities for the center leaders. Interestingly, all contracts were signed by the host university, by the DNRF, and, most important, by the center leader.  Each CoE contract stipulated down to the square meter where and how much lab and office space the host was expected to allocate to the center at a minimum and how much “cool cash” the host universities had agreed to provide to co-support the center, including recruiting for junior positions and new faculty positions. These contractual details at that time reflected Olesen Larsen’s insight into how universities were managed. This has fortunately since changed, but the contracts are still there and are still signed by the center leader.

The establishment of the DNRF was not well received by the State Scientific Research Council. The council argued that the money could be spent just as efficiently through its grant system. In 1993, after only three years, the new Minister of Science, Frank Jensen, three days before he was appointed minister, declared that the foundation should be closed. Fortunately for today’s international standing of Danish research, that didn’t happen. However, the same year the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in an evaluation, applauded the DNRF and the CoE initiative.

In 1997 the then-minister of science, Jytte Hilden, initiated a change in the governance structure of the foundation in order to separate the function of the board chair and the director. This resulted in the appointment of the rector of the University of Southern Denmark, Henrik Tvarnø, as chair, and starting in 1999, Professor Ole Fejerskov as director of the foundation. Olesen Larsen disagreed with this decision and left the foundation after acting as interim director from March to October 1998. Subsequently, he became an adjunct professor at Aarhus University in research policy.

In 2002, once again, the foundation’s independent trust fund, meant to support excellent research centers, was at stake. However, the first independent international evaluation of the foundation in 2003 demonstrated that the CoE model had proven to be very effective in generating breakthroughs in all fields of research initiated by the foundation. Therefore, in the revision of the whole Danish research system in 2004 it was decided that the independent Danish National Research Foundation would continue.

One of the hallmarks of the foundation’s activities established by Olesen Larsen is the annual follow-up meetings, where the board chair, the director, one or two board members, and staff from the foundation visit all the COEs. These follow-ups use a fixed agenda, including separate meetings with the Ph.D. students and post-docs. However, the issues addressed depend on the age of the center: meetings at the newer centers focus more on administrative issues and those at older centers focus more on the progress of the centers’ scientific accomplishments.

Later, the foundation was evaluated by independent international experts. First, the foundation was evaluated in a report from Gunnar Öquist and Mats Benner in 2012: “Fostering Breakthrough Research: A Comparative Study.”  This report concluded that the establishment of the Danish National Research Foundation in 1991 and its performance over the next 20 years had been a dominant factor in the excellent performance of Danish research compared with, for example, Sweden; this turn of events is often called the “Danish miracle.” Furthermore, in 2012 the Danish government initiated an international independent evaluation team chaired by Wilhelm Krull from the German Volkswagen Stiftung. This group unanimously concluded that the foundation had been very successful in fulfilling its mandate to support front-line basic research for the benefit of Danish society. At the presentation of the report, the then-minister of research, Morten Østergaard, concluded: “If science is football, the DNRF would be Barcelona.” Finally, the Danish Council for Research and Innovation Policy (DFiR), in a report in 2016 describing the links between research policy and national academic performance, also concluded that the excellence initiative provided by the DNRF was a dominant factor in supporting the excellent international performance of Danish science.

The main purpose of the DNRF today has not changed since Peder Olesen Larsen, more than 30 years ago, formulated and implemented the first law that established the DNRF. The foundation still focuses on the excellence of the scientists, the leadership of the principal investigators, and the transparent selection process and flexibility of the grants funded by the foundation. Olesen Larsen’s formulation of a research funding instrument that creates science that is “better than good” has led to an impressive list of high-profile Danish scientists whose outstanding performance of front-line research has been internationally recognized. Olesen Larsen’s work has also served as one of the models for a similar European research success story with the establishment of the European Research Council.

Danish society at large and particularly its research community owe Peder Olesen Larsen great thanks for his work and dedication in initiating and implementing this fairy tale. It is up to today’s research community to make sure the fairy tale continues to have a happy ending. Denmark will need the DNRF and the CoE concept that Peder Olsen Larsen created for a long time.

Professor Klaus Bock was chair of the DNRF from 2004-2012. Before that he was Research Director at Carlsberg Brewery and affiliated to the DNRF Center for Fastfase Organisk Kombinatorisk Kemi (SPOCC).

Professor Thomas Sinkjær was CEO of the DNRF from 2007-2015. Before that he was center leader at the DNRF Center for Sensory-Motor Interaction (SMI), at Aalborg University.

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