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Debate: PhD students strengthen society's development

Publically funded PhD employees are the researchers of the future and they are very important for the development of society, writes Head of Graduate School Lise Wogensen Bach. Their contribution to society is one thing – whether society wishes to make use them is something else entirely.

By Lise Wogensen Bach, vice-dean and head of graduate school at Aarhus University, Health.

The debate about how useful PhD graduates are in the labour market has begun again – negotiations on the Finance Bill for 2016 have started, and one of the proposals is a DKK 1.4 billion reduction in next year’s research funding.

This could mean that fewer new PhD students will be enrolled – the researchers of the future.

So we are keeping a close eye on the political trends here at the graduate school, Health at Aarhus University.

We are also keeping an eye on both positive and critical points of view from employers – particularly when viewpoints about "poor investments" and "the poor quality of health science PhD graduates” appear in the public debate.

Poor investments or a necessity?

As one of the country's largest graduate schools, we have around 600 enrolled PhD students. Of these, more than half (54%) are medical doctors, and our PhD graduates are in the majority of cases employed in the healthcare sector, while a few find jobs in private companies.

Some people claim that the fact that the globalisation funds have not resulted in a greater proportion of PhD graduates in the private sector is a sign of a poor investment

But in my view there is good reason to emphasise both how – and how much – PhD graduates employed in the public-sector can contribute to society's general development.

Not least in the health sciences, where I am based.

Qualified basis for debate

I view health and welfare as a prerequisite for growth. My view is that PhD graduates working in the public-sector help to strengthen this.

And at Aarhus University, Health, we have now begun a systematic process of creating a qualified basis for the debate on the PhD students and graduates:

- We have initiated a locally-based study of the PhD degree programme’s importance for the professional practice of both medical doctors and nurses.

We are doing this to highlight the job responsibilities and duties that are carried out by our PhD graduates in the hospitals, compared to graduates without a PhD degree.

- We are in the process of examining the extent to which the work of the PhD students makes a decisive contribution to Danish research.

- On the basis of an international evaluation of the Danish graduate schools, we have embarked on a process which places the whole process from recruitment of students to PhD graduation under the microscope.

Both researchers and employers are contributing, and together we will formulate a strengthened PhD programme leading up to 2020.

Where is the debate about political values?

The contribution of PhD graduates to society is one thing – whether society wishes to make use them is something else entirely.

Seen from a health science vantage point, there is in fact an inherent conflict in the debate about political values in the current redistribution of resources from the Danish Council for Independent Research in favour of Innovation Fund Denmark – a redistribution that actually threatens the opportunities available to Denmark's future researchers.

Funds awarded by Innovation Fund Denmark are targeted towards projects with a high degree of focus on the immediate application-oriented aspect, which are targeted at the development of new products that must create more jobs and economic growth in the private sector.

In my sector, that means for example the development of new medicines that are primarily intended for people who are already ill.

But we could ask whether it would be ethically more prudent to prioritise the preventative aspect, even though this initially involves a smaller economic growth potential, but which, on the other hand, would be of benefit in the longer term?

The preventative aspect is not traditionally an area that interests private companies.

Many PhD graduates employed in the public-sector contribute with new knowledge that strengthens the health and welfare of the population. This reduces the need for expensive healthcare services and ensures economic growth in the long term.

A discussion of political values is difficult to avoid when we discuss health, welfare and growth – and thus also the future of the PhD degree programmes in the health sciences.

 This article was published in Danish at Altinget on 27 October 2015.