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International Careers Report : Denmark - Building on Tradition

H. Lundbeck A/S (
Invest in Denmark (
LEO Pharma A/S (
Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (
Novo Nordisk A/S (
Prime Minister’s office ( )
Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (
Technical University of Denmark (
University of Aarhus (
University of Copenhagen (
University of Southern Denmark (

In recent years, Denmark has emerged as a major global player in life science research and commerce. The Scandinavian nation has a century-old history of developing pharmaceutical companies, an equally long tradition of conducting clinical trials, and a decade’s worth of experience in creating biotechnology firms. Add to that the presence of a handful of authentically global pharmaceutical companies, most notably Novo Nordisk which specializes in treatments for diabetes, and it’s clear why the country has gained its high profile.

Now, the Danish government wants to cement that global position and even improve it. To expand the country’s appeal to investors and researchers in the international life science community, the government has set out a strategy based on the recommendations of the Globalization Council — a unique public council with five ministers and representatives from research communities, universities, industry, unions, employers, and others among its members. “My vision is a society that gives every individual the opportunity to make a success of his or her life,” says Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who chairs the council. “Therefore my government’s goal is that Denmark becomes a global leader regarding sustainable economic growth development into knowledge society and dynamic entrepreneurship.”

Based on the recommendations of the Globalization Council, the Danish Government has proposed a strategy that includes more than 300 initiatives, which extend well beyond life science or, indeed, science as a whole. Life science plays a key role in the strategy. Indeed, Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation Helge Sander notes that “the intention is to solidify Denmark’s place on the world stage of breakthrough research in the life sciences.” The effort will involve all sectors of Danish life science: universities, hospitals, and industry. Indeed, the strategy strongly emphasizes collaboration among those sectors. “To a high degree, challenges and inspiration come from collaboration with scientists from other sectors, such as private industry and other types of research institutions or from interdisciplinary settings,” Sander continues. “We know that some of the best research environments in Denmark are also the environments with a high level of external funding and collaboration with external partners.”

Strong Infrastructure
The government has a strong infrastructure from which it can launch Denmark’s expanded global presence. The country ranks first in the world in terms of biotechnology patents per member of the population, second in Europe in the European Union’s best performance index of biotechnology innovation, and third in Europe in the absolute size of its drug development pipeline.

It all started with beer and pork. “The Carlsberg brewery and laboratory was instrumental in creating a research industry through microbiology 150 years ago,” explains Lauritz Holm-Nielsen, rector of the University of Aarhus. “And the industry side of the equation probably stems from our strong agricultural background. To produce cheese, you need enzymes. We got into enzymes early and into insulin because we had a large availability of pork.” Børge Diderichsen, vice president of corporate research affairs at Novo Nordisk, agrees. “We developed considerable competencies in agriculture-related industries,” he says. “You can draw a line from barley to pigs to insulin and Novo Nordisk.”

Those developments also instilled a culture of collaboration among Danish life scientists in academe and industry. “The starting point was strong, creative researchers who saw commercial opportunities in the medical discoveries being made in the 1920s,” says Claus Bræstrup, president and CEO of pharmaceutical firm H. Lundbeck. “At one point, Danish politicians realized the value that the two sectors comprise together and laid down framework conditions that allow life science contributions in both the public and private sectors to continue to develop and grow.” Collaboration also plays a key role in Denmark’s academic research community. “There is an established tradition for close relationships between the basic and clinical sciences,” explains Ralf Hemmingsen, rector of the University of Copenhagen. “The collaborative closeness between the basic science and clinical sciences and the industry and public health/epidemiology part of it has enhanced multidisciplinary projects.”

Building on the Foundations

Jens Oddershede, rector of the University of Southern Denmark, points out another key factor in Denmark’s development of life science: a long history of precise medical record-keeping. “We’re very well organized,” he says. “It’s easy to trace our ancestors and place our genes. That’s important for many studies in life science and clinical science.”

Building on those 19th and 20th century foundations, modern Denmark has much to offer the world of life science. “The most important thing is the high educational level in Denmark,” says Henrik Ditzel, professor and center coordinator of the Medical Biotechnology Center (MBC), part of the University of Southern Denmark and associated with Odense University Hospital. “Although Danes pretend to be very relaxed, they are very ambitious.” Elisabeth Manford, director of Denmark’s national investment promotional agency Invest in Denmark, agrees. “Great emphasis is placed on lifelong education and the general education system enjoys high priority,” she says. “The result is a well-educated population with a high proportion of university graduates. Every year we turn out 400 Ph.D.s and 5,500 Master’s graduates with life science–related degrees.”

The collaborative ambience helps. “It is critically important,” says Torben Greve, pro-rector for research at The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University. “Training of young scientists is highly facilitated through such collaboration.” It has also led to success in business. “There is very close collaboration between the industry and academic institutions, through economic contributions, joint projects, research academies, training of students in industry, and consulting boards,” says Tore Duvold, vice president for drug discovery at LEO Pharma. “Several collaborations have resulted in the establishment of new companies based on innovative concepts.”

The small size of both the country and its population (of roughly 5.5 million) also contributes to its strength in life science. “Everybody knows everybody in a small country like Denmark,” says Kristian Stubkjær, dean of research at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU). “It’s easier to organize collaborations.”

Concentration of Institutions

Collaborations also benefit from the concentration of research institutions. “Here in the Copenhagen region we have the medical school, the Pharmaceutical University, the Royal Veterinary School, and the Technical University. That’s a very prosperous group within a six mile radius,” Hemmingsen says. Manford makes a similar point in a larger context. “In an area no bigger than Silicon Valley we have eight leading universities, six university hospitals, more than 140 biotech companies, and 18,000 people working in the industry,” she says.

The collaborative instinct extends across national borders. A six-year-old bridge over the Øresund, the stretch of water between Denmark and Sweden, links universities, research institutions, and life science companies in greater Copenhagen and their southern Swedish counterparts in Malmö and Lund. The result is the Medicon Valley, a hub of life science that rivals conglomerations in other parts of Europe.

The University of Aarhus’s Holm-Nielsen points out another advantage of Danish geography. “Being small and agile, we can catch up relatively quickly – even if we start a little behind larger countries,” he says.

Corporate governance has also helped to guarantee the prosperity of Danish life science. “We have a system in which some companies are protected by foundation structures, so that they can’t be taken over,” Diderichsen explains. “So we have been able to maintain a strong national research base in the life science industry while in Sweden almost all the well known pharmaceutical companies have disappeared or been merged.”

The government has also played its part. In 2000, a new law gave Danish universities ownership of their researchers’ inventions, thereby facilitating the universities’ ability to make licensing deals with industry. As a result, Denmark has become an excellent country in which to do life science business – a fact that overseas firms have begun to recognize. “A strong position in R&D, together with a dynamic business environment and excellent framework conditions are contributing factors to why international companies like GE Healthcare, Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Aeras, Ferring, and Biogen IDEC have chosen to set up R&D centers or production facilities in Denmark,” Manford says.

Present and Future Initiatives
Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Sander sums up the current situation. “Over the last few years, a range of initiatives has been taken to improve the framework for life science. They include strategic research programs in biotechnology, incubators, and new science parks,” he says. “We have a modern R&D framework, with new legislation governing the universities. This has given the universities more freedom with regard to self-governance. More emphasis has been placed on strategic research with the establishment of a specific research council for strategic results as well as the establishment of a national high-technology foundation.”

Given all those advantages, why does the government want to create a new global strategy? “International competition within R&D is getting strong and stronger,” Sander says. “If we’re not constantly seeking to improve our international standing in R&D, we may well fall behind. We must not get complacent and believe that our life science, as well as other fields, will continue to be successful.” The strategy has a business objective as well. “Denmark consistently ranks among the best business environments in the world,” Prime Minister Rasmussen explains. “But because of our small size, this fact is not very well known in the international community. Consequently, during the next few years we will increase our efforts to inform about the superior business opportunities offered to foreign investors in Denmark.”

The government has proposed the strategy to do just that. “It is not only within R&D we are drawing up a globalization strategy,” Sander explains. “Primary education must be improved; teachers’ qualifications must be improved. Further education, R&D, and innovation are all areas where the government has a set of strategic initiatives to face the challenges of globalization. But it is of major importance that we are placing quality at the top of the agenda.”

Four Segments of Strategy
Four segments of the proposed strategy have particular relevance to life science:

  • By 2010, public funding for R&D will amount to 1 percent of GDP, in contrast to the present figure of 0.75 percent. And overall, public and private funding of R&D will reach 3 percent of GDP. This implies substantial growth, achieved largely through the internationalization of Danish science.

  • The model for funding academic research will undergo a significant change. The government will base its allocation of funds for basic research in universities on an overall evaluation of the level of quality and the goals presented in the development contracts. Universities will be assessed on their teaching, research, and knowledge proliferation. Those institutions that do best in the evaluation by international experts will receive relatively more funding.

  • By 2010 at the latest, the government will base half of its support for research on open competition, as opposed to earmarks for specific institutions. Today, winners of open competition receive just one-third of the share of public R&D expenditure.

  • The numbers of Ph.D. scholarships and industrial Ph.D.s will double. Ph.D. scholarships in natural sciences, technical sciences, and health sciences will gain particular benefit from this segment of the strategy.

The strategy focuses on scientists of the future as well as the present. “The government wants to improve the general international outlook and understanding among students in Denmark,” Sander says. “Danish students will be encouraged to take parts of their education abroad and the Danish educational system will be made more attractive to international students. These initiatives are part of the government’s aim to ensure that new generations of the Danish work force are better prepared to face the challenges of globalization. But it should certainly also make them more attractive to employment in international companies within Denmark.”

Rasmussen summarizes the strategy’s goals. “We will implement methods in order to better utilize and transform R&D into new commercial technologies, products, and services,” he says. “We will strive to create the best business environment in the world so that entrepreneurs can grow and compete.”

Denmark’s life scientists have welcomed the strategy. But they have one small concern. “There’s enormous encouragement for us to do industrial-style applied research, which might take away from basic research over the long term,” MBC’s Ditzel warns. According to Stubkjær of DTU, industry echoes that sentiment. “The life science/pharmaceutical industry wants universities to do basic research, not to move into applications,” he declares.

Setting Up the Framework

Having announced its strategy for globalization, the government has begun to organize a framework that will enable it to flourish. That will involve extensive collaboration in the life science sector. “Different organizations, institutions, and companies will be collaborating on the implementation of specific initiatives,” Sander says. “This could apply to the development of educational projects or formal traineeships in private companies. The Danish life science sector could play a major role with regard to this.”

As it happens, most academic and industrial life science organizations have already started to set up collaborative projects and to look overseas for ideas and staff. A typical example is the work of the Danish Research Coordination Committee. “It is an attempt to put all important partners in research – the research councils, universities, and national laboratories – on the same committee,” says the University of Southern Denmark’s Oddershede, who formerly chaired the institution. “The idea is that those who give out the money and those who get it are presented with the same facts, so that we can design programs that will benefit both parties. The committee also has the main responsibility for funding graduate education. That’s an excellent tool in directing research.”

The life science industry now plays a major part in encouraging academic research. One scheme involves government contributions as well. “The Danish government is supporting 70 new industrial Ph.D. fellowships per year,” Novo Nordisk’s Diderichsen says. “The company pays approximately half and the government half, and the Ph.D. students work both in a company and a university and are jointly supervised by scientists from both parties. This very successful program is also open to foreign Ph.D. students.” Lundbeck’s Bræstrup outlines the advantages of that scheme. “It builds bridges between industry and academia,” he explains. “The Ph.D. students gain a broader understanding of their own opportunities and those of their profession, and program graduates are extremely well qualified as workers and bridge builders in both worlds.”

Greve of The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University points out that the programs have already begun to yield results. “These are seen in a number of publications, and in the increasing amount of patents of which universities have part ownership,” he says.

Corporate Contributions

Individual firms make their own contributions to the support of academic research in the homeland and to spreading the word about Danish life science throughout the world. “We have major research and training collaborations with about 27 universities, hospitals, and research institutions globally, about half of them Danish institutions,” Novo Nordisk’s Diderichsen says. “These agreements are important because they mean money for the collaborating institutions and transfer of knowledge in both directions. This is also a joint confidence-building effort.”

LEO Pharma has sponsored an incubator concept that helps individual scientists and university groups to develop promising research leads for therapeutic use. “We shared our knowledge and experience in drug development and gave the valuable consultancy needed to take the concepts further,” Duvold says. In addition, he continues, “We regularly give economic support from our research foundation to fundamental research. We primarily focus on young and promising talents that are about to establish a group, a concept, or facilities. We also have direct collaborations in which we work actively with academic groups on developing new pharmacological models, elucidating biological mechanisms, and targeting proteins, technologies, or compounds with therapeutic potential.”

Lundbeck owes its very existence to collaborative technology transfer and its continuing growth to an international outlook. “The company we see today was founded and created against a backdrop of a research discovery of a new medical product,” Bræstrup recalls. “The discovery was put into practice, and has since resulted in growth and many jobs in Denmark – and also abroad. And it has laid the groundwork for our ability to continue our research and to develop new drugs to treat diseases of the central nervous system. We are also active participants in the development of the local research environment. For example, we are active board members for the various universities.”

Changing Attitudes

Academics’ attitudes to collaborating with industry have shifted significantly in recent years. “There has been a big change in perception,” MBC’s Ditzel says. “University research used to be very separate from industry. Now, scientists have realized that they can benefit a lot from collaboration. Basically all the professors in my place have collaborations.”

The University of Copenhagen has taken the initiative in working with industry. “We have increased our efforts in technology transfer services for researchers over the last five years,” Hemmingsen reports. “We have, for example, established some industry professorships funded by the industry and appointed by the university, with a 50-50 time share between the firm and the faculty. Such professorships serve as paradigms for young researchers so they don’t feel that, once they go into industry, they can’t come back.”

Universities have also started to set up formal academic collaborations. “There are current strong efforts to create synergy between our university, which is focused on food, and other Danish institutions focused on pharma and drugs,” Greve says. “In fact we have just created a Danish Pharma Consortium, and we are trying to get a European technology platform in this field into the Copenhagen area.” In addition to Greve’s veterinary university, the consortium includes the University of Copenhagen, the Pharmaceutical University, and the Technical University. “Our consortium will collaborate with other organizations, such as research institutes, research hospitals, and the pharma industry,” says DTU’s Stubkjær.

The University of Copenhagen has taken a step further, by joining a worldwide Alliance of Research Universities. “It was inaugurated in January 2006,” Hemmingsen says. “It includes strong institutions in the United States, such as Berkeley and Yale, as well as Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom. We’ll hopefully get exchanges of a few students, and some collaborations involving medical scientists.”

International Announcements

Danish universities also have active efforts to recruit life science faculty members and graduate students from overseas. “Recruiting professors from abroad is taken very seriously by our university,” Greve says. “All positions are announced internationally, and we try very hard to convince applicants that our university and Denmark represent the best place to stay.”

Part of the recruitment process involves making academic institutions comfortable for individuals from different scientific cultures. Ditzel, who moved from the Scripps Research Institute in the United States, helped to set up the University of Southern Denmark’s Medical Biotechnology Center with an American-style organization in which several professors head their own large research groups. “It was a very inspiring idea to have a fresh start with seven professors starting at the same time,” he recalls. The MBC faculty team has a strong international flavor, with professors from Canada and Germany, as well as Denmark and the United States.

Since English has become the de facto lingua franca of life science, Danish universities use the language as a powerful stimulus for overseas recruitment. “All our meetings are in English,” Ditzel says. “And our e-mails to each other are in English. We also have interest in helping people to adapt to the country. But you can get around without speaking the native tongue.”

Other universities take a similar line. “We have recently negotiated an agreement with the government that includes more courses and whole degrees that can be taken in English,” the University of Copenhagen’s Hemmingsen says. “We are announcing positions for professors and postdocs in English and often in the international journals.”

Traction for English
The trend to teaching in English has the greatest traction at the graduate level. “The language is Danish at the undergraduate level, although we have some programs in English and we do everything we can to make the framework comfortable for foreign students,” Holm-Nielsen of the University of Aarhus says. “At the graduate level, language is not an issue. We use the English language and original literature. We also have Danish language courses and good programs for spouses.” At DTU, Stubkjær adds, “Most of our courses at the Master’s level are given in English. In most of our departments the working language is English.” Much the same is true of the University of Southern Denmark, which has faculty members from several European countries, Australia, former nations of the Soviet Union, and the United States. “We have offered a range of Master’s programs in life science and other areas in English,” Oddershede says. “The Ph.D. program ties up with the Master’s program in English.”

Some institutions offer a little extra help to acclimate newly arrived faculty to the mores of Danish science. “We have a two-year support scheme for new professors that provides direct economic support for their research until they get used to the Danish system of research councils,” Stubkjær notes. That type of assistance complements a government incentive announced recently that charges foreign scientists tax at a rate of 25 percent of income – rather than the usual 55 percent to 60 percent – during their first three years in Denmark.

Those efforts, combined with the government’s new strategy, promise to keep Denmark high in the global league of life science. “In the years to come, we will see the results of a range of life science initiatives,” Minister Sander says. “In the Copenhagen area, a major bio-center is presently under construction. This center will include industry and academia, a science park, and world-class science environments. And the new, national high-technology foundation is to have a specific focus on biotechnology. I see a variety of potential for growth within Danish life science that could lead to world-class science within academia as well as industry.”

A former science editor of Newsweek, Peter Gwynne ( covers science and technology from his base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

DOI: 10.1126/science.opms.r0600008

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