Velkommen i Danmark!

Career strategies for young European scientists
by Ralf Schreck, Labtimes 02/2010

When working in Denmark you’ll surely meet her...

The financial crisis has hit Denmark’s research and universities hard. Moreover, the Danish efforts to explicitly promote young and female scientists are still inadequate. Nevertheless, the country provides plenty of excellent opportunities for doing competitive research.

Hundreds of old castles and islands and a coastline spanning 4,500 miles make Denmark an attractive destination. However, being a smaller European country rich in history and tradition, coupled with a high interest in environmental issues, the question as to whether Denmark can score when it comes to research and innovation is unavoidable. An ambitious governmental programme called “Progress, Innovation and Cohesion” was launched in 2006 and aims at preparing Denmark for future challenges. The recently replaced Danish Science Minister, Helge Sander, announced earlier this year that cutting-edge research requires input from abroad and that Denmark has to open its doors to foreign scientists. At the same time, the University of Copenhagen sacked more than 100 scientific staff in the departments of biology and geosciences due to financial strain. Other universities announced they have to discharge permanent staff, too. Here, Lab Times will take a closer look and introduce a couple of funding possibilities that may pave your way for a career in Denmark.

Danish Inventory

With 5.5 million inhabitants, Denmark is only the 18th largest European country. However, despite its small size and limited resources, Denmark is quite often ranked among the leading economies in Europe or even worldwide. For example, Denmark is considered to be one of the best places to live with respect to health standards, welfare and education. It is also the world leader in business climate, which is partly due to Denmark’s ‘flexicurity’ model: great flexibility in firing employees for the employer and security in receiving adequate unemployment benefits and qualification opportunities for the unemployed. Moreover, Denmark offers the best IT infrastructure, is the least corrupt and the second most peaceful nation in the world. It was rated 5th behind Switzerland, USA, Singapore and Sweden in the latest Global Competitiveness Report. Climate, energy and environment have been hot topics in Danish politics, society and research for a long time. Twenty percent of its electricity is generated by wind power and the two companies Vestas and Siemens have cornered the largest share in the global wind turbine market. On the down side, there is the Danish taxation system. Denmark currently has the highest taxes in the world. These include a sales tax of 25% and a progressive income tax that may add up to 63% for high-wage earners. However, as a foreign scientist you may choose between a special tax rate of 25% in the first three years or 33% in the first five years of your employment.

Denmark invests almost 3% of its gross domestic product in research and development (R&D). About two-thirds are in the private sector, which is dominated by the pharmaceutical industry. Larger pharmaceutical companies include Novo Nordisk, LEO Pharma, AstraZeneca and H. Lundbeck. During the 2007 municipal reform, Denmark was sub-divided into five regions and 98 municipalities. The Capital Region (Region Hovedstaden) with Copenhagen attracts most of the funds for R&D, followed by Central Denmark (Region Midtjylland). There are currently more than 100 biotech companies and Denmark’s biotech sector is still growing. A 2008 report by Ernst & Young documented that Denmark is the third leading European country with respect to drug candidates in the pipeline. Biotech companies are mainly concentrated in the Medicon Valley, a leading bi-national life science cluster connecting several hundred companies, 33 university hospitals and ten universities in the Øresund Region. This region spans the greater Copenhagen area and the island of Zealand on the Danish side; in southern Sweden it stretches into Scania (Skane) with Malmö (Malmo) and Lund being the two major cities. Business is facilitated by the Øresund Bridge, which allows one to commute between the two countries in 20 minutes.

According to the SCImago publication ranking, Denmark is number 26 in the world, an output comparable to Austria or Finland. However, if impact is taken into account, Denmark does a lot better and is placed among the top 15 in several fields. In the 2009 ‘THE – QS World University Rankings’, two Danish universities made it into the top 100 in the ranking “Biomedicine and Life Sciences”: the University of Aarhus at rank 64 and the University of Copenhagen at place 86. In the latest Academic Ranking of World Universities, the University of Copenhagen was ranked 47th in Life and Agriculture Sciences. So far, 13 Danes have been honoured with the Nobel Prize including the physicist Niels Bohr in 1922, the immunologist Niels Kaj Jerne in 1984 and the chemist Jens Christian Skou in 1997. Overall, it is quite obvious that Denmark is trying to make the best out of its limited resources.

Danish Universities

Danish universities are the main players in higher education and the public research system. About 120,000 students are enrolled at eight Danish universities. The percentage of international students is quite low at 4.4%. Starting in 2002, the universities went through a couple of radical reforms. They were afforded more autonomy by the University Act of 2003 and four years later a merger of 12 universities with 13 public research institutions was initiated. The resulting five universities are the University of Copenhagen, the University of Aarhus, the Technical University of Denmark, the University of Southern Denmark and the Aalborg University. How to integrate the remaining three universities, the Copenhagen Business School, the IT University of Copenhagen and the Roskilde University, as well as the various independent public research institutes, including the Statens Serum Institute, is still under discussion.

The Danish universities have been protected so far against competition for governmental funding by foreign or non-public universities. However, a discussion initiated by the former Science Minister Helge Sander raised the future possibility for a partial privatisation of university education, with the IT University of Copenhagen being a first candidate. Also, the Lego Cooperation announced its genuine interest in establishing a private university in Billund. Danish students are strongly opposed to privatisation because they fear uncapped tuition fees. In 2006, tuition fees were introduced for non-EU students, who have to pay annual fees for Bachelor or Master programmes in the range of E6,000 or higher. As a consequence, the number of students from non-EU countries almost halved over the last years.

A novel career pathway for academic staff was introduced in 2007. The academic career ladder now has four major categories: positions below assistant professor, assistant professor, associate professor and professor. In 2008, there were 3,050 assistant, 5,800 associate and 1,800 full professors employed at Danish universities. Positions at the assistant professor level include postdoc, researcher and assistant professor. They are either fixed-term for up to four years and may be extended to a maximum of eight years with up to six years at the same institution. As for permanent employment, the post is transferred to an associate level position after positive assessment in the first four years. Associate professors and senior researchers are at the next level; their appointments are usually permanent but may also be fixed-term, as, for example, with visiting scientists. A ministerial order in April 2008 stipulated that announcements for associate and full professorships must be advertised internationally.

Danish universities are financed by two major routes. Basic governmental funding is earmarked for education, research and other purposes in annual appropriations acts and reached E1.8 billion or 65% of total university turnover last year. Competitive funds from public research councils and foundations as well as from the EU and private donors complement the direct contributions by the government. In multi-annual development contracts between the particular university and the Science Ministry, objectives are set with regard to research, education, dissemination of knowledge or research-based services. Since 2008, the amount of basic funding also depends on reaching the targets set in the development contract.

The overall quality of education at Danish universities seems to be quite good. A survey of 17 OECD countries by the Lisbon Council for Economic Competitiveness placed Denmark after Australia and the UK. High scores were obtained for the implementation of Bologna measures and the high rate of students participating in tertiary education. As part of its internationalisation strategy, Denmark is going to establish a Danish University Centre in Beijing, China, by 2013. This will accommodate 100 scientists, 300 master and 75 PhD students, about half and half from each country. Construction costs to the tune of E10 million have been sponsored by the Danish Industrial Foundation, while the estimated annual running costs of E15 million will be borne jointly by the Chinese Academy, Danish universities and the Danish government. In addition, special funds have been earmarked for talented Chinese PhD students to participate in the Danish industrial PhD initiative (ErhvervsPhD-initiativet). Industrial PhDs have to perform a company-focused PhD project in cooperation with a company and a university. The students are employed by the company, which receives project subsidies from the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation. Working hours should be divided equally between the company and the university. In 2008, industrial PhD students had a monthly pre-tax salary of E4,500. The number of industrial students tripled from 50 in 2002 to 150 in 2010.

Danish Research System

The main responsibility for the Danish research policy is in the hands of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. It distributes – either directly or indirectly – three quarters of all governmental funds for research and innovation and is currently headed by Charlotte Sahl-Madsen. A level below the ministry, there are a couple of foundations, councils and the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, which is in itself partitioned into various scientific research councils and programme commissions. Evaluations on the funding system performed in 2009 pinpointed ongoing problems, including the high number of smaller government-controlled organisations with partial overlapping responsibilities, scattering research money in a rather uncoordinated manner.

Priorities and objectives for education, research and innovation are detailed in multi-annual programmes. Important programmes and strategy papers are the National Reform Programme 2008, INNOVATIONDENMARK 2007-2010, the Globalisation Strategy (with more than 350 initiatives, having started in March 2006) and RESEARCH2015. You may find calls for governmental funding at The two major public funding organisations devoted primarily to basic research are introduced in more detail below.

... and eat this: Rødgrød med fløde.

Danish Council for Independent Research

The Danish Council for Independent Research (DCIR) was established in 2004. DCIR is in charge of funding projects suggested by the scientists themselves. DCIR is going to spend about E180 million this year, ten percent of all public R&D funds. The council is headed by a board of nine directors allocating money to five Scientific Councils. Each council has grant-making authority and anywhere between nine and 20 scientific members, who are appointed by the Science Minister. Council members serve a term of four years with the option of a two-year reappointment. You may be particularly interested in the funding opportunities offered by the Danish Medical Research Council or the Danish Natural Science Research Council.

Most of the DCIR grants are restricted to a single deadline in early March. Postgraduate scholarships and postdoctoral grants have two deadlines a year, whereas START grants for international collaborations may be submitted at any time. In general, all applications are also open to non-Danish citizens and applications are in English. Currently, the Danish Natural Science Council and the Council for Technology and Production Sciences accept only online applications. DCIR receives about 3,000 applications each year, which are usually processed and evaluated within three to four months with an overall success rate of 30%. At present, external reviews of applications are not performed in all councils. Each council publishes a detailed document twice a year listing all open calls and conditions for funding.

The novel SAPERE AUDE – “Dare to know” – elite career programme was just launched, earlier this year. It is open to Danish and non-Danish scientists. There are three funding lines: DCIR-Postdoc, DCIR-Starting Grant and DCIR-Advanced Grant. In the first round 45, 35 and seven grants, respectively, will be funded over all councils. DCIR-Postdoc grants are for postdocs and assistant professors with demonstrated research capabilities. The grant covers an independent research project between one and three years at a Danish institution or abroad. At the application deadline your doctorate has to be less than four years old. Maternity, parental, sick or military leave are taken into account. As a PhD student, you may apply, providing your thesis is submitted within six months. Upon approval the DCIR expects you to participate in international competitive grants such as the ERC Starting Grant. You have only one shot to apply in your career. Your application will be evaluated at two levels. At first, it will be assessed as to whether you qualify for one of the ordinary individual postdoctoral grants of DCIR. Whether you get the additional bonus of up to E95,000 from SAPERE AUDE will be decided a couple of months later. During the evaluation, special emphasis will be placed on the international components of your application, meaning international collaborations and exchange visits.

DCIR Starting Grants are for the establishment of young investigator groups. It targets associate professors with a PhD title obtained during the eight years prior to the date of application. You must document that you have carried out original research at a high international standard in the past. Again, you only have one shot at this programme. The Starting Grant covers up to four years, with a maximum of E0.8 million. You may pursue your research project either at a Danish institution or abroad. The evaluation process is two-step with an interview of short-listed candidates in autumn.

Besides grants for major and minor research projects lasting between one and three years, there are several other programmes that may advance your career in Denmark. The above-mentioned individual postdoctoral grants provide E80,000 per year. If you apply as a foreign scientist, you have to write a couple of sentences, ensuring that you will import special expertise to your Danish host institution. STENO grants are for talented young researchers wishing to establish an independent research activity at a Danish research institution. Requirements are a doctorate or equivalent qualification received two to five years prior to application and demonstrated mobility. You may apply for your own salary for up to four years and an additional E40,000 per year.

Danish Research Foundation

The Danish National Research Foundation (DNRF) was established by the government as an independent foundation in 1991. Its annual budget is close to E55 million. DNRF is governed by a board of trustees consisting of a chairman, who is nominated by the Science Minister, and eight additional members. The main task of DNRF is to promote basic research in all areas, primarily by establishing Centres of Excellence. In addition, there are some smaller initiatives and programmes aimed at internationalisation, education of PhD students and networking. For example, collaborative research projects of six professors, so far, from abroad have been supported by Niels Bohr Visiting Professorships. A couple of Danish-Chinese Research Centres are co-financed with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, as well as a Center for Geomicrobiology at Aarhus together with the German Max Planck Society. Exchange programmes have been established for PhD students and postdocs with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and a cooperation agreement was also made with the National Science Foundation of the United States.

DNRF currently supports more than 40 Centres of Excellence over five to ten years each with about half to one million euros per year. More than two-thirds of these Centres focus on research topics from Life Sciences. A Centre may consist of either one or several groups and is headed by a senior scientist of international standing. Centres are established competitively upon calls and have to be co-financed by the host institution. In 2006, eight out of 140 proposals were funded after international peer-review. Support was given to projects of young and senior scientists alike. About a third of all members involved in the Centres are from abroad. The next call for applications will be in August 2010. If you want to be part of a Danish Centre of Excellence you may take up direct contact with the senior scientist in charge.

Societies and Foundations

Private foundations and charitable societies do not only make significant contributions to research funding but also add to the diversity of funding opportunities in a given country. A good example is the Danish Cancer Society. It is amazing that almost every tenth Dane is a member of the society. Last year the society spent about E35 million for roughly 100 research grants and fellowships and for its own research institutes, the Institute of Cancer Biology and the Institute of Cancer Epidemiology. The Institute of Cancer Biology in Copenhagen has a staff of about 80 scientists working on various basic aspects of cancer diseases. The institute is headed by the Chilean, Julio Celis, and is affiliated with the independent Centre for Genotoxic Stress Research and the Danish Centre for Translational Breast Cancer Research. According to Birgit Christensen of the Danish Cancer Society, there are no special programmes to attract research talents from abroad. The Society’s website provides job openings and application advice for fellowships and research grants in Danish only. Not all positions have to be publicly advertised. Thus, if you are into cancer research, it may be best to personally contact the group leader of your choice and get assistance with funding.

There are more than 14,000 foundations in Denmark. The great majority is restricted to grant making for charitable or other public benefit purposes. A small percentage of foundations are, however, corporate foundations controlling large commercial enterprises, from which they receive money for grant making. The Novo Nordisk and the Lundbeck Foundation, two foundations primarily active in biomedicine, are introduced in more detail below. Also worth mentioning are the Villum Kann Rasmussen Foundation, the VELUX Foundation, the COWI Foundation or the Carlsberg Foundation.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation holds the majority of shares of Novo Nordisk A/S, an international operating manufacturer and provider of pharmaceutical products and services. Diabetes care and hormone therapy are major business areas. The foundation allocated E26 million for research last year: approximately half for grants, fellowships and prizes, the other half for the Danish Biobank, the Steno Diabetes Center and a few smaller initiatives. Overall, a quarter of roughly 1,000 applications got approved. Various fellowships, either for clinicians or biomedical researchers, may provide part of your salary and research expenses. There is only one application deadline for fellowships per year in early February.

In the middle of 2009, the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research (CPR) was opened at the University of Copenhagen. The Foundation’s contribution to establishing the CPR was E80 million. CPR promotes basic and applied research on human proteins of medical interest. The CPR is home to a Facility for Protein Science and Technology and several research departments. The Department of Proteomics will be led by Matthias Mann, a director at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry near Munich. Søren Brunak from the Technical University of Denmark will be in charge of the Department of Disease Systems Biology. The CPR is still recruiting scientists at all levels and job openings are posted at A Visiting Scientist Programme was launched earlier this year. Scientists at all levels are invited to work three to 12 months at the CPR. The visitor is supposed to take care of his salary, travel and accommodation, whereas CPR takes over all expenses directly related to the research project. Priority areas for collaborative projects are: cell signalling, epigenetic regulation, diabetes mechanisms and protein therapeutics. Proposals for projects are evaluated four times a year.

The Lundbeck Foundation was established in 1954 and controls Lundbeck A/S, an international operating pharmaceutical company focusing, nowadays, on diseases of the central nervous system. The foundation promotes research in biomedical and natural sciences. Preference is given to projects related to neurosciences and disease mechanisms in general. There are no restrictions in patenting or commercialisation of research results obtained in projects funded by the foundation. Approximately E45 million each year are used for Lundberg Centers of Excellence, research grants, visiting scientist and junior group leader fellowships and a number of awards. In 2008, 221 out of 1,063 applications were successful. One recent E4 million grant sponsors the establishment of the Lundbeck Foundation Nanomedicine Centre for Individualised Management of Tissue Damage and Regeneration at Aarhus University. Junior group leader fellowships are awarded for five years. Targeted are those Danish and non-Danish scientists in their thirties capable of establishing an own research group at a Danish institution. Applications have to be submitted online and are evaluated by an international committee. In the last evaluation round, three Danish scientists were relocated from Stanford University and CERN, Geneva, whereas two Danish awardees already worked at Danish institutions. For 2010, again five fellowships have been announced, each providing E1.3 million. According to Anne-Marie Engel, the foundation’s Director of Research, 60 applications by potential junior group leaders are received on average per call: half from biomedicine and half from natural sciences.


As major public research performers, the Danish universities have been hit hard by highly controversial reforms in recent years. Reform opponents mourn the loss of academic freedom and an increase of bureaucracy leaving less time for research. Others criticise the shift towards more applied research and increasing commercialisation. Despite the current financial crisis the Danish government continues with the reform process and allocates significant resources for education, research and innovation. However, the Danish effort is still inadequate with respect to the promotion of young and female scientists. Funding decisions appear to be made over years by small groups of scientists and not always in a transparent manner. Nevertheless, Denmark provides plenty of excellent opportunities for doing competitive research. Job openings for PhD students or more experienced researchers are easily found on the web pages of universities. So, if their short winter days don’t bother you, there are no major reasons not to spend part of your career in Denmark.

Internet Resources

Last Changed: 09.06.2012