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Debate: It is difficult to plan major discoveries

Aarhus University will be honouring the research talents of the future when it presents the Jens Christian Skou Award tomorrow; but at the same time, it is also a warning against reducing non-targeted research funding.

By Allan Flyvbjerg, Director of the Steno Diabetes Center Copenhagen, and formerly dean at Health, Aarhus University until 30.09.2016.


On Thursday 6 October, the Jens Christian Skou Award will be presented for the first time at Aarhus University.

The award is given to an early career researcher within the healthcare sector, who has shown him- or herself to be extraordinarily talented in their field of research and creative and productive in their research.

The award has not only been established to honour the research talents of the future.

It is just as much the starting point for directing a lasting honorary light on the name of Jens Christian Skou, who in 1997 received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for ground-breaking research within cellular biology.

Jens Christian Skou discovered what is known as the sodium-potassium pump, but it took a number of years before the research community as such understood the scope of the discovery. And it took no less than forty years before it triggered the honorary Nobel Prize.

More recently, Jens Christian Skou has also said that he would never have completed his work under the conditions that apply today. His projects would probably have ended up in the pile of "non-eligible projects".

“When I claimed that an enzyme could transport ions, people said I was talking nonsense. I would never have been given the funding to investigate this under the current system," said Jens Christian Skou in an interview in 2008.

Skou is a researcher who has the ability to wonder about things in a productive way, and then have a good idea and explore its possibilities with long series of experiments and in an extended collaboration with research colleagues.

Towards the end of the 1950s, Aarhus University was in a development phase with approx. 2,000 students. Skou was associate professor in medical physiology and held weekly lectures in physiology. He also examined almost all of the students in physiology for the first exam. And then he did research.

Jens Christian Skou conducted research in the "old-fashioned" way, where it was curiosity and his desire to understand the way the world worked that drove the process. There was no fixed project description, nor any clearly formulated "outcome". There was no requirement to publish partial results, nor a requirement for a certain number of publications, and neither was there a requirement to spend an increasing amount of his time applying for external research funding.

For Skou, work at the department consisted of putting on a lab coat and conducting experiments in the laboratory until he was interrupted. All other activities, such as office work, meetings, students and guests, were obligations that interrupted what was important; working with test tubes, frogs, crabs, sharks, centrifuges, membrane compounds and measuring instruments.

In fact, Skou did not know exactly what he was going after when he began his project. He just knew that this was something important and that it had to be investigated. It took him several years and many near misses before he finally made his discovery.

When Jens Christian Skou was interviewed in Aarhus University's own newspaper at the age of 90, he said: "People forget that research is similar to drilling for oil: Obviously, the platform producing oil must have the necessary resources, but we all know that one day the well will run dry. So we must constantly drill new wells, even though we run the risk of not finding any oil.” The almost 98-year-old Jens Christian Skou still holds the view that having researchers spend a lot of time applying for external funding for their work is detrimental to research, as is forcing them to define what they want to find before they begin research – instead of trying to solve the mysteries of the world with an open mind. Because that is how major discoveries are made.

Times have changed and today, among other things because of cutbacks in public research support, an increasing proportion of Danish research is financed via private research grants.

The universities and the funders make a pact to create a product that benefits society. Commercial research is very important, but we must not forget that what we will be destroying research’s food chain, if there is not good non-targeted research. That is why there must exist opportunities for talented scientists to have the opportunity to unfold their curiosity.

Just as Jens Christian Skou did in the late 1950s.

The research food chain is central to the continued development of Denmark as a strong research nation.

It is of decisive importance for growth and innovation that there is a constant, growing undergrowth of promising research ideas and talents, and that these talents can grow and mature in our universities and in the R&D environments of business and industry.

Early career researchers who are curious and wonder about things are essential for budding research in Denmark and its development. But this requires that there is the political will and investment to focus on and support the early career talents and their ideas for groundbreaking discoveries that might be realised.

Or might not.

The fear is that we will not see more Danes like Jens Christian Skou, and that there will not be other Danish Nobel Laureates.

In recent years, non-targeted research has faced tough political pressure. In the current financial year, the Danish Council for Independent Research, which is the organisation that prioritises and distributes money to non-targeted research, has experienced marked cutbacks of 25 per cent.

The cutbacks in non-targeted research in 2016 forced the council to reduce the research funding it gives to financing elite research and talent development in Denmark.

There will be no more grants from the two of the three initiatives in the Sapere Aude programme: the research talent programme and the advanced grant programme. The Sapere Aude programme provides the most talented researchers in Denmark with the best conditions to carry out research on a high international level. It is an important platform for Danish elite researchers as a starting point for international research careers.

As the chair of the Danish Council for Independent Research, Peter Munk Christiansen, said earlier this year, what will be particularly affected by the cutbacks is “nurturing talents in Danish research”.

It is a catastrophic direction for Danish research to take. Non-targeted research should be viewed as an investment that contributes to excellent research that is of great importance to society.

A number of research projects strengthen elite research in Denmark and contribute towards ensuring the continued development of a strong and competitive Danish economy.

When the Danish Prime Minister says that business and industry provide the foundation underneath our society, he should not forget that many research projects financed by non-targeted research funds are cornerstones of that foundation. Non-targeted research is particularly central for a number of research-intensive and global companies in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. In some cases, there is a direct connection between the research results and the product, while in other cases, the effect of the research on society in general is realised in more indirect and complex ways.

Research-intensive industry in Denmark is not best served with a narrow foundation beneath the publically-funded, long-term research. Growth and development must stand on the shoulders of groundbreaking discoveries of the kind that typically arise from non-strategic basic research.

Non-targeted research is one of the cornerstones of our society, which must live off of knowledge and good ideas. And this is where the surprises belong.

The article was originally published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 5 October 2016