To project overview

Strategy with purpose

Annual Review Article 2020

By Flemming Besenbacher, professor, DrSc, Dr.h.c.mult., FRSC Chairman

Here in 2020, Denmark has faced what is probably its biggest crisis since the Second World War; a health crisis in the form of COVID-19. The virus, which hit Denmark at the start of March, resulted in an assertive and authoritative lockdown of the country. It has been impressive to see how the Danes have shown trust in their prime minister, the government and the health authorities. 

"It is exceedingly difficult to make predictions, particularly about the future"
Niels Bohr

We have stood together and listened to the numerous orders and requests to adopt appropriate, considerate behaviour. Happily, we have therefore come through the health crisis, but only to find ourselves in a sizeable economic crisis with consequences as yet unknown. 

These two crises are naturally at the forefront of both the public consciousness and the media, but we also need to remind ourselves that before COVID-19 emerged, creating fear and recession, we had a climate crisis of a scale and severity that absolutely cannot be forgotten, the health and economic crises notwithstanding. 

We are therefore faced with the unavoidable task and responsibility of having to simultaneously address three crises. And if we are to succeed in this, it will require fresh insight, new knowledge and novel breakthroughs, which can only happen if science is activated, integrated and respected. 

As a society, we must at all times listen to the skilled researchers and scientists, and we must ensure that the health and economic modelling and political decision-making have an enlightened and scientific basis and are not just born of gut instinct. It is vital that science is allowed to play the socially beneficial and independent role for which it has the potential, and in this the Carlsberg Foundation has its own important role to play. 

Politicians should listen to and trust in science, and practise what I would call “science-based politics”. And this is true for the health crisis, the economic crisis and, no less importantly, the climate crisis. 

Because science holds one of the keys for opening the door to a more sustainable society tomorrow than the one human beings are offering today when it comes to human health, the global economy and the planet’s long-term sustainable welfare. 

Investment in science, research and innovation is a project that is by no means reserved for the elite and times of fair wind and economic growth. It is a project by the people for the people. 

Long-term investment in excellent research is an investment in Denmark retaining, in the decades ahead, its status as one of the wealthiest, most egalitarian and free societies in an increasingly globalised world. 

During the corona crisis, it was therefore entirely natural that we in the Carlsberg family’s trinity of foundations – the Carlsberg Foundation, the New Carlsberg Foundation and the Tuborg Foundation – showed agility in quickly allocating funding not just for research, but also for art, culture and civil society. 

The Carlsberg Foundation has supported a number of projects aimed at obtaining scientific insight in areas such as new vaccines, diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19, the progression of pandemics, the behaviour of Danes and the importance of the home during lockdown of a society. 

Because it is in the DNA of J.C. Jacobsen, the founder of Carlsberg and the Carlsberg Foundation – the DNA that the Carlsberg Foundation was established to protect and perpetuate – to take responsibility for and give back to society. Not least at a time like this when Denmark and the world are in crisis and undergoing monumental change.

An unshakeable foundation, but a new narrative

At the end of 2019, the Carlsberg Foundation’s board of directors adopted the Foundation’s first formal strategy, which will guide our work over the next five years. With an overarching narrative, four universal principles and four focus areas, the new strategy comprises a unifying framework for the Foundation’s numerous funding and communication activities, setting an inspiring direction for new initiatives. 


The strategy does not, of course, alter the Carlsberg Foundation’s purpose to support basic research within the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences. This purpose was set out by J.C. Jacobsen in the Foundation’s first Charter of 1876 and expresses his will, which we aspire to honour and respect. 

The basic purpose of the strategy has been to challenge and develop the Foundation and our instruments so that we can contribute optimally to the development of Danish society through research. 

The board of directors has therefore critically evaluated all our instruments in relation to the world in which the Foundation and Danish research currently find themselves, and on that basis we have tried to achieve a better understanding of how the Foundation can create even greater social value. The new strategy will also help to increase our transparency and clarity in communications about the Foundation’s work. 

Among other things, the strategy work led to the formulation of a general aspiration for the Foundation’s work as a whole, expressed in the narrative: “We brew knowledge for a brighter future”. 

The narrative (see below) does not describe the Foundation’s specific activities, but sets the general tones for Bildung as well as the capacity for self-reflection and scientifically based societal development. 

In other words, the narrative expresses the Foundation’s change theory, namely that it is not just science itself, but also a deeper understanding of the role of science for society and the individual, that is essential for being able to make smart decisions that can lead both society and the individual towards a better and more sustainable future.

The Carlsberg Foundation’s strategic narrative

Strengthening talent development

The Carlsberg Foundation’s core activity is research funding, but our strategic focus is young talents with the potential to establish independent research groups and subsequently become established independent elite researchers. In today’s world, it is absolutely vital that the very best young research talents gain international experience, which gives them an international outlook and invaluable networks. That is why we support research posts abroad for young newly qualified PhD holders.

In today’s world, it is absolutely vital that the very best young research talents gain international experience, which gives them an international outlook and invaluable networks 

With this postdoc instrument, we are trying to strengthen the young talents even more so they have better conditions to self-finance further development of their research profile at an early stage in their careers. Another postdoc instrument has been created to ensure that, following a research post abroad, young research talents return to Denmark with new knowledge that will benefit both Danish research and Danish society. 

The Foundation’s strategy also has a special focus on newly appointed associate professors, as a number of studies have shown an “hourglass effect”, which describes the challenges that young associate professors face in attracting their own funding. The alternative is that they become overly reliant, in financial and research terms, on a more senior professor, which experience shows is not conducive to a successful career. 

We have just carried out a survey of our former postdoc scholarship recipients, which to our delight revealed that more than 60% currently have permanent university positions as associate professors and professors, predominantly in Denmark. This is the best impact and value creation that the Carlsberg Foundation can contribute to Danish society, and it tells us that both international experience and the facilitation of independence are important parameters for a successful research career.

Promoting diversity

An important new focus area for the Foundation’s work is the promotion of diversity, especially gender diversity. We believe it is a serious issue that Danish research has a “leaky pipeline”, with female representation progressively falling away from PhD to professor level. And unfortunately there is not much to suggest that this trend will change significantly without intervention. 

We therefore want to take action on two fronts: firstly, to identify and launch initiatives to which the Foundation itself can contribute, and secondly to identify and initiate discussions with other relevant players on the challenges within working environment, networking, gender roles and other areas that lead to loss of female talent. 

One example of the former is our new parental leave reimbursement scheme, which was introduced to address the issue that universities are not fully compensated by public sources for salary payable when a project researcher takes parental leave. 

As the greater part of a family’s parental leave is taken by the mother, the lack of reimbursement suggested that project managers are perhaps less likely to take on female postdocs. The Carlsberg Foundation therefore decided to cover this additional expense for all researchers, both men and women, employed on one of our grants so that this problem is quickly resolved. 

This has received a very positive response and appears to be meeting the aim of making a real difference. In the endeavour to launch more good initiatives like this one, we have carried out a questionnaire survey, mainly of our young grant holders, about what actions for increased gender diversity they see as most important and most effective. 

We will now include this extremely valuable input in further work, and a number of the actions will be launched in the coming years in line with our strategy.

New knowledge that catalyses social development

Just as we want to support talent development at Danish universities, we also want the general research that we support to contribute to a scientifically based approach to policy development for a more sustainable future. 

Science-based politics is extremely important at a time of major uncertainty when players are independently trying to create their own versions of the truth. 

We want to help ensure that, in all areas of society, decisions are made wherever possible on an enlightened basis deriving from professionally generated knowledge rather than individual players’ own convictions and self-constructed theories. 

I personally believe the corona crisis has contributed to an increase in respect for research and that in future we will therefore see science given greater prominence when social decisions need to be taken. 

A specific example of how we have supported research during the corona crisis, and of the agility we are continually trying to show, is the grants for the first three corona-related research projects, all of which were formulated and approved for funding in less than 48 hours shortly after the lockdown of Danish society at the start of March 2020. 

The board of directors assessed that the need to initiate valuable Danish research that could help mitigate the health crisis was so acute that we ourselves decided to reach out to leading researchers within vaccine development, behavioural research and epidemiology at Danish universities. 

All three projects – the first led by Professor Ali Salanti, University of Copenhagen, and Professor Jørgen Kjems, Aarhus University; the second by Professor Michael Bang Petersen, Aarhus University; and the third by Professor Lone Simonsen, Roskilde University – have created significant value by advancing our understanding of both the biological and social aspects of the corona crisis. You can read more about these projects in the researchers’ respective contributions to this annual review.

We also want the general research that we support to contribute to a scientifically based approach to policy development for a more sustainable future

International collaboration

In 2019, a new instrument was introduced. The Carlsberg Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Oxford, set up a visiting fellow elite postdoc programme in which highly promising Danish postdoc talents are being given the opportunity to gain unique research experience at one of the world’s most elite universities. Experience that they will then bring back to Denmark for the benefit of their own career progression at Danish universities. 

In parallel with this, the Carlsberg Foundation is setting up, by means of an endowment, a chair at the University of Oxford in behavioural neuroscience, i.e. the use of biological principles to understand subjective experiences and behaviour. 

The first chair holder will be Professor Morten Kringelbach, who will establish an interdisciplinary research centre hosting philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and psychologists within eudaimonia, a key concept in Aristotelian ethics. 

The concept seeks to define the thoughts and experiences that combine to give the individual human experience of a meaningful and full life. The first postdocs are scheduled to arrive in Oxford during the course of 2020. 

These new visiting fellows will be affiliated to one of the University of Oxford’s famous colleges and receive professional mentorship from Professor Kringelbach. 

We hope that our postdocs’ active participation in the collaborative work of the research groups in Oxford generally, and at the college in particular, will enrich their stay, and that the placement in a truly world-class research environment will not only give them the best possible platform for developing their competences as researchers, but also provide them with a unique network, which, as previously mentioned, is vitally important for young researchers’ future careers.

Impactful communication

In connection with the Foundation’s new strategy, we have designed a communications strategy that will take our already strong communication and dissemination activities to a new level. 

The strategy defines focus areas such as “the Carlsberg family’s inheritance and work” and “the importance and role of science” as well as the Foundation’s primary target groups, where the researcher obviously has top priority, but where decision-makers at Denmark’s universities, in Denmark’s companies and in the Danish Parliament are also a focus. 

Furthermore, our focus will be on the inquisitive Dane who wants to understand the history of science and the role and necessity of research for the future that we know is on the way. 

The artistic science film “Almost Human” is an example of an initiative that encourages reflection on the importance and role of science in society and for the individual. 

On 1 May 2020, the film was made available free of charge on the Foundation’s website as a gift to everyone in the Danish Realm and Iceland, and we hope it will be a catalyst for science-based dialogue on the major global challenges that society is facing.

Almost Human
Watch the film for free.
The Carlsberg Foundation only has the rights to show the film in Denmark. Therefore, the film can only be accessed using a DK IP-address.

Strengthening the Carlsberg family

Another specific dissemination initiative is “Science | Passion”, which the Carlsberg Foundation is developing in collaboration with the New Carlsberg Foundation. It is hosted in the New Carlsberg Glyptotek’s beautiful ceremonial hall, where we bring together a researcher and an artist, together with a moderator, to discuss a specific theme with which they are both working, but which they obviously view from different perspectives. 

The format is arousing great interest among Danes because the encounter between science and art produces interesting exchanges and fresh, enriching insights. “Science | Passion” is also a statement that we in the Carlsberg family are keenly committed to taking on joint projects and clearly communicating the unique breadth and unity of the Carlsberg family. Strengthening the Carlsberg family has also therefore been chosen as one of four focus areas in the new strategy. 

This type of strengthening of our shared voice and professional breadth can, in the most beautiful way, give concrete form to our narrative concerning what creates the whole human and enlightened society. The biggest joint project in 2021 will undoubtedly be “Home of Carlsberg” in J.C. Jacobsen’s old brewery buildings at Valby Hill (see photo below), where the Carlsberg family’s shared voice will be heard loud and clear. 

The brewery, the foundations and the museums will for the first time feature in a shared story of our founders, their values, and the foundations and museums they instigated. We have high hopes for the new visitor centre, which, in addition to the large joint exhibition, will also be home to a sculpture garden, a music stage, a gastropub and brewery horses.

New faces in the Carlsberg Family

On many fronts, 1 March 2020 was an important day of change in the Carlsberg family. Not only did New Carlsberg Glyptotek gain a new director, Gertrud Hvidberg-Hansen, who came from a position as director of Faaborg Museum. 

The New Carlsberg Foundation also gained its first female chair in the person of the Glyptotek’s outgoing director, Christine Buhl Andersen. In Christine, the New Carlsberg Foundation has acquired an extremely skilled figurehead who is passionate about art and will be a strong voice and debater working to promote the importance in society of art and culture. 

Furthermore, the Carlsberg Foundation’s bursar of many years, Jens Otto Veile, has decided to retire as he has reached 70. He will be replaced by Kim Füchsel, who has been affiliated with PwC as a state-authorised auditor for more than 40 years, including 30 as a partner. In the years 2011-2018, he served as Managing Partner, COO, Deputy CEO and member of the Management Board of PwC. 

I would like to say a big thank you to Jens Otto Veile for the dedicated and skilled work that he has done for the Carlsberg Foundation in the almost 20 years he has been bursar of the Foundation, and to offer Christine, Gertrud and Kim a warm welcome to their new posts in the Carlsberg family.

New challenges require new knowledge

I am very proud of the way in which we in the Carlsberg family jointly assumed responsibility, seized the opportunity and demonstrated agility and drive when the corona crisis suddenly changed everyday life for all of us. The New Carlsberg Foundation allocated funding for the reopening of the crisis-hit museums. 

The Tuborg Foundation established an emergency fund for the youth organisations that are helping those most affected by the corona virus. And in the Carlsberg Foundation we supported vital corona-related research within the humanities and social and natural sciences. 

The Carlsberg brewery also stepped up, activating its competences and resources when Denmark most needed them. The brewery converted parts of its cider production to the production of essential hand sanitiser. Never before have the three grantawarding Carlsberg Foundations and the brewery acted in such a coordinated way and with such solidarity. A solidarity that I believe would make the brewer happy and that also reminds us that “it all comes from beer”. 

The lockdown of Denmark has been a huge challenge in many ways, but it can be turned into something positive if we listen to science. This requires us to not frantically implement stopgap measures to reopen and restore the society we had before March 2020, but instead to reinvent society and create a shared vision of the future. 

A future that builds on all the experiences and realisations we have made, and maintains the agility, creativity and determination we have shown during the corona crisis, which are now worth gold in connection with the urgently essential green and digital transformations. 

I am very proud of the way in which we in the Carlsberg family jointly assumed responsibility, seized the opportunity and demonstrated agility and drive when the corona crisis suddenly changed everyday life for all of us

The fact is that the health crisis, the economic crisis and the climate crisis can all be resolved, but it will require us to listen to and trust in science. Society’s foundations, which many wrongly believed were unshakeable, have now been uprooted, so we have a truly unique opportunity to rebuild society in a new way. 

An evidence-based way that is fitting for the time in which we live – the “fourth industrial revolution” – and that embraces people, planet and prosperity.