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Small in size, high on impact

22 May 1998

Since the heyday of quantum mechanics, when Niels Bohr and Copenhagen became synonymous with the development and interpretation of quantum theory, physics has flourished in Denmark. Indeed, when countries are ranked according to their relative citation impact in physics - an indication of the quality of the average physics research paper from that country - Denmark is rated second in the world. The other Scandinavian countries also do well. Last year they all appeared in the top 12 nations for science, as ranked by the number of papers per person and the number of citations per person. However, despite this track record, all four countries face problems that are common to all leading scientific nations: physicists are concerned about funding for research, the recruitment of university staff and the fall in the number of young people studying physics.

Secrets of success

One of the reasons for this high impact is that Scandinavian physicists specialize in niche areas. According to Ole Hansen, director of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, they prefer to identify an interesting area and build up a wealth of knowledge and expertise in it. For example, he says, Denmark is due to launch the Ørsted satellite later this year. Named after the Danish physicist who first demonstrated empirical evidence of a link between electricity and magnetism, the mission involves a small satellite with a single objective: to map the Earth’s magnetic field.

Other Scandinavian countries also excel at niche research. “Finland has a leading position in some research areas, ” says Mikko Paalanen, whose laboratory at the Helsinki University of Technology has specialized in ultra-low-temperature physics since 1965. “We hold the present low-temperature world record – 280 picoKelvin – achieved in cooling the nuclei of rhodium metal in 1993, ” he says (Physics World July 1993 pp24-25). This expertise has given Finnish researchers an advantage in other areas too. “Using low-energy solid-state physics to understand cosmological phenomena is becoming more popular, ” says Paalanen. “We are doing some of the leading experiments on this front.”

In Sweden, physicists employ the same approach. “Swedish scientists define the forefront of research in some special fields, such as my own [materials science], ” says Svante Svensson of Uppsala University. He chairs the user organization of the MAX Laboratory at Lund University, which provides synchrotron radiation to a number of beamlines for surface science, and atomic and molecular science.

Denmark: increasing investment

For Denmark the future could be as glorious as the past. In recent years, physics there has flourished as the country has increased its spending on science. Indeed, there are more than 60 different public, private and international sources of science funding in Denmark. In 1996 the country spent 1.8% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, according to the Danish Ministry of Research. The government has since set about increasing the proportion to 2-3%. The budget of the Natural Science Research Council has doubled between 1993 and 1997, and its budget for 1998 to 2002 is set to increase by almost a third to DKr 415m (about £35m).

Funding for basic research also comes from the Danish National Research Foundation. Since it was established in 1991, the foundation has used about DKr 800m to create and fund 23 centres for basic research. The centres – such as the Aarhus Centre for Advanced Physics at Aarhus University – each have a five-year operating and grant framework, with considerable freedom and responsibility. The Natural Science Research Council has also established six centres, including the Centre for Chaos and Turbulence Studies at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen, with grants of DKr 2-5m per annum over five years.

“Over the last five years the external funding of projects has not been a great problem, ” says Hansen. However, there are some teething problems with distributing the money. “In 1998 the research councils are having temporary cash-flow problems – research funding is increasing but the funds distributed by the research councils are somewhat lower, ” he says.

The research is also more directed than previously, with the introduction of new programmes, such as FREJA (female researchers in joint action) and THOR (technology by highly oriented research), and demands for more collaboration with government research institutions. “There is a little more political control than with the basic research funding, ” says Hansen.

Sweden: funds squeezed

The position of physics in Denmark contrasts with that in Sweden, where funding for physics is steadily falling. Budget figures released by the Swedish Natural Science Research Council – a highly respected organization that has been the backbone of Sweden’s basic research system for the last 50 years – show that in 1997 it spent some SKr 121.5m (about £9.2m) on physics, representing a fall of about 10% since 1995.

The pressure on funds is threatening big science (see for scandinavia’s big science international collaborations). A year ago Sweden considered withdrawing from CERN, the European particle physics laboratory, to meet a proposed budget cut of SKr 150m. The subscription was coincidentally about the amount that the government wanted to save on the 1998 research budget. “In September [1997], when the government was deciding how to implement cuts in the 1998 research budget, the minister decided not to withdraw from CERN, ” says Per Carlson, professor of particle physics at Stockholm’s Royal Institute of Technology. The matter is be discussed at the Swedish Natural Science Research Council meeting next month.

Sweden, too, is exerting more political control over what is funded. “Now, the European Union funding system and the implementation of the so-called foundations for strategic research are forcing research to define itself as more ‘applied’, ” says Svensson. “Many active researchers in Sweden are not convinced that the outcome is entirely positive, ” he adds. “The fact that research defines itself as ‘applied’ does not mean that it has quality, or that it is applied. Researchers adapt to the situation as most actors in society adapt to external pressure.”

Norway: under pressure

In Norway, things are not much better. “Science support is not good and is getting worse, having dropped from 1.9% to 1.7% of GDP in the past few years, ” says Jens Feder, a physicist at the University of Oslo. “There is an over-representation of the social sciences. Norway publishes less per capita in physics than other countries, ” he adds. However, the research council recently proposed boosting Norwegian research funding to average OECD levels, which would require an injection of NKr 5bn (about £400m) or 30% of Norway’s total research budget.

The science and technology division of the Research Council of Norway has a budget of NKr 575.3m for 1998, which is 1.6% higher than the revised 1997 budget. However, money has been transferred from the Ministry of Education, Research and Ecclesiastical Affairs to the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Industry. This reallocation of funds has weakened basic research, says Kristian Fossheim, professor of physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim. “The research council suffers from the disease that only industry is really important and only the short perspective is needed, ” he says. The focus of work at the university has drifted away from high-tech science to low-tech industrial applications, he adds.

Physicists are also concerned that the Research Council of Norway has not selected any new physics areas during its five-year life. Also, the council is split about big science: some members think that it should be cut back and the membership fees used for something other than physics. In 1997 the Norwegian government paid NKr 84m to CERN and NKr 70m to the European Space Agency. Other European programmes have received a mixed reaction. “Norway’s full participation in the European Union’s science programme has caused frustrations owing to high rejection rates for proposals, ” says Fossheim. “But there have been benefits, including closer links between Norwegian physics and the rest of Europe and greater interaction with European physicists.”

Finland: university dominated

Finland spends a large proportion of its GDP on R&D – estimated to be 2.7% in 1997 – and this figure is set to rise. The government recently proposed giving the research councils 31% more money. Accordingly, R&D funding should be 2.9% of GDP from 1999.

“Finland’s physics performance depends totally on the universities, ” says Juhani Keinonen of the department of physics at the University of Helsinki. “Many companies have applied research in physics, but their role is not important in literature, ” he says. He also highlights the role of the universities in applied research. “Funding is very strongly focused on applications, ” he says. “The relevance of research to society is thus guaranteed. However, there is a danger that basic research will wither away.”

Research funding has also concentrated on salaries and equipment, which have increased so fast that Finland has not been able to fund larger national-scale research facilities. Keinonen would like to see a shift in funding towards research projects as a whole. However, he is satisfied with the responsiveness of the present system. “Finnish physicists think the system is flexible with respect to new trends and can react fast to educate new researchers in new fields, ” he says.

However, the Research Council for Natural Sciences and Engineering, one of the four research councils under the Academy of Finland, warns that the country’s small population and the low status of mathematics and science in schools are obstacles to growth and development.

Future concerns

Despite the relative strength of their subject in Scandinavia, physicists are concerned about the future. Many university staff will retire in the next few years, and there are worries that there will not be enough young people to replace them. “There are some 95 permanent physics positions at the University of Copenhagen, ” says Hansen. “About 65 people will retire between 1998 and 2011, which is a bomb under continuity. [However, ] we have been allowed to use some of our operating funds as special remuneration to recruit a new physicist every nine months to replace some of those who will be leaving, ” he says.

In the longer term, Danish physicists are also worried that young people are turning away from physics. “Between 1000 and 1500 youngsters take physics and mathematics at high level at sixth-form college, giving them entry to physics at university, ” says Hansen. “[But] the number who choose physics at university has fallen by 15% over the past three or four years.”

The situation is similar at the University of Aarhus. “My greatest concern is the stagnating or falling number of people wanting to study physics, ” says Flemming Besenbacher of the Institute of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University. “Not enough physicists are being trained to meet the requirements of business.”

As in the other top scientific nations, young researchers also need encouragement. To advance the work done by young researchers, both Hansen and Jens Knudsen, an astrophysicist at the Ørsted Laboratory in Copenhagen, say that research money should be targeted at talented individuals. “Every second or third year we get an obvious talent, ” says Knudsen, “[but] we have too few positions for really outstanding young people. Give them the opportunity and they will create progress, ” he says.


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