University Cash Crisis Blocks Career Paths

From the 2 April 1999 pages of Science Magazine

COPENHAGEN--A bitter row has broken out at the University of Copenhagen, which has been forced to cut its scientific staff to close a yawning budget gap. The university science department decided in January that, instead of assessing who were its least productive researchers and firing them, it would simply not fill any junior tenured positions that became vacant--in effect blocking the career path of young tenure-track researchers. As the consequences of that policy have begun to bite, aspiring young scientists say they now have little prospect of advancement and a whole generation of young researchers will either have to leave academic science or pursue a career abroad. "There is an atmosphere of hopelessness among students and postdocs whose possibilities for embarking on an academic career at the university now seem extremely limited," says plant molecular biologist Lars Østergaard, a postdoctoral fellow.

The crisis was precipitated late last year when the Danish government cut overall funding to Denmark's five universities. The science department at Copenhagen--the country's largest--was hit especially hard because it was already running a budget deficit. Forced to cut 15% of the tenured science positions--which translates into 70 people--the administration eliminated about 12 posts by offering early retirement to older faculty members and will cut the rest over time by not filling junior positions. "[It's] outrageous to prevent the necessary staff renewal and infusion of new ideas by forcing out young, talented, tenure-track scientists," says molecular biologist Olaf Nielsen, an associate professor.

The new policy is likely to exacerbate a simmering age problem in Danish universities. During the 1960s and '70s, the university system expanded rapidly and a large number of tenured positions were created. That generation of scientists is now approaching retirement age. "There will be an acute need for replacements when 30% to 40% of the currently tenured staff retire in 5 to 10 years," says associate professor of zoology Peter Arctander. "But because of what is happening now, there will be a lack of qualified young scientists."

Dean of science Henrik Jeppesen defends the policy. Although "it is sad that a number of young researchers have to leave," he says, "it would have created a very bad atmosphere to fire faculty members who have worked here for many years." This view is supported by university president Kjeld Møllgaard, who says it would be "an unfair personnel policy to simply get rid of the least productive as if it were a horse race." Jeppesen and Møllgaard both acknowledge, however, that the reaction of Denmark's powerful unions was a consideration. Per Clausen, president of the academics' union, the Magisterforeningen, says: "In principle we regard the science department's handling of the situation as the only proper response, but at the same time it is clear that blocking staff renewal will badly hurt the university and its research."

Indeed, research is already hurting. Several research groups have been reduced to the point that ongoing projects have effectively come to a halt. For example, one group in the department of genetics investigating the silencing of chromatin has been shut down after 4 years of successful work because the tenure of its leading assistant professor has been canceled. Science teaching will also be seriously hit, because courses are largely taught by assistant professors and junior associate professors. Leif Søndergaard, an associate professor of genetics, says that "because of the cuts, many courses will no longer be offered every year and others will be generating waiting lists."

Young researchers are now beginning to make their voices heard. Østergaard has sent a highly critical letter, signed by 90% of the graduate students and postdocs in the department of molecular biology, to the Copenhagen University Journal. Among other things Østergaard describes a widespread feeling that "the university is shooting itself in the foot by not identifying and getting rid of those researchers whose scientific contribution is minimal."

Lone Frank is a writer in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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