Scientific Social Responsibility

Photo: Scanpix Denmark

The Carlsberg Foundation asks all applicants to reflect from the outset on the utility value of their research projects. Furthermore, upon completion of projects, grant recipients submit a technical report in which they are also required to include a short statement on the relevance of the research for society and, where applicable, for private-public collaboration.

In this connection, the Carlsberg Foundation uses the term “scientific social responsibility” (SSR).

SSR benefits both research and society

SSR is analogous to the company’s work with corporate social responsibility (CSR). Just as companies are now expected to act responsibly in relation to energy and resource consumption, impact on animal and plant life, the environment, workers’ rights, anti-corruption, etc., the Carlsberg Foundation wants researchers funded by the Foundation to be aware of the utility value of their research for society.

With SSR, the Foundation hopes to be able to counter the prevailing scepticism about research and to ease the pressure that is sometimes brought to bear by society and politicians in demanding that research should make a greater contribution to the achievement of political goals, thereby resulting in short-term solutions and growth.

However, top-down management of research rarely produces new discoveries and breakthroughs. On the contrary, with excessive top-down management we risk not exploiting the potential of free research to come up with solutions to global challenges.

Experience tells us that the scientific and technological advances made in the last hundred years are not the result of a top-down political process, but often the result of the right combinations, i.e. the right person with the right ideas in the right place, the right laboratory with the right infrastructure, etc. It is often then other people with insight into business development who put the research into practice as technology and actually create value for society.

By demonstrating SSR, researchers can also bring about greater understanding of the importance of research both now and in the future. This will allow researchers to maintain the freedom to decide the content of their own research – and there is no doubt that they are the best people to make that decision.

SSR and the global Grand Challenges

“It is the responsibility of scientists, from all sectors of science, to position and define their research activities in a context where they are able to contribute to the betterment of society and to help meet the Grand Challenges of our time.”

From “Scientific Social Responsibility: A Call to Arms” by Flemming Besenbacher, Peter Thostrup and Povl Krogsgaard- Larsen in Angewandte Chemie International Addition, 2011, Volume 50, Issue 46, 11.11.2011, pp. 10738-10740.

Even if the Carlsberg Foundation supports excellent basic research, it does not necessarily lead to direct societal value and progress. By focusing on SSR, however, researchers are motivated to assume shared responsibility for societal development and to consider how their basic research can help address the global Grand Challenges.

The importance of addressing Grand Challenges will become ever greater. The world population is set to rise from 7 to 10 billion by 2050. Will we be able to feed 10 billion people and will there be sufficient clean drinking water? In previous centuries, we have been used to cheap fossil fuels, but the consequence of this is that we now have the highest level of atmospheric CO2 ever measured.

How do we handle a transition to sustainable energy sources? In addressing these Grand Challenges, it is important that we pool our efforts, think in terms of interdisciplinary research, and break down the barriers and silos often seen in academia. We need to integrate disciplines within natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities whenever these problems need to be addressed. SSR is the perfect tool for this, and the Carlsberg Foundation wants to motivate researchers to actively voice their commitment to it.

The Carlsberg Foundation and SSR

It is not just in connection with research applications that the Carlsberg Foundation inquires into the SSR aspect. Four months after completing their projects, grant recipients must submit a technical report in which they are once again asked to reflect on key questions: “what is the potential societal value of the project?”, “how has this project been relevant for your career?” and “has the grant from the Carlsberg Foundation helped you to obtain an adjunct professorship, a full-time lectureship or a job in Danish industry?”

The vast majority of basic research projects funded by the Carlsberg Foundation have a very long time horizon, and it is for this reason that it is important to reflect on the results that the project has produced, the most important advances and how they can help create value in society in the longer term.