case study:
Villum Fonden

Can the happiest nation also become the smartest?


Denmark is regularly classed as one of world’s happiest nations, yet falls behind when it comes to making top talents in STEM research happy. VILLUM FONDEN approached us to gain a deeper understanding of the key barriers keeping top research talents from choosing a career in Denmark, and to find solutions that can attract and retain the world’s best brains.


To paint a comprehensive picture of the potential barriers in the Danish research environment, we conducted ethnographic research, both within Denmark and beyond. We followed individual top talents in their everyday lives to gain a holistic understanding of life as a researcher, supporting this with best-practice visits to some of the world’s leading universities.


We found Denmark is not on the map when top talents look for a place to pursue their academic career, whilst those who actually come to work in Denmark find it hard to integrate, as the research environment and Danish culture do not contribute to a sense of feeling welcome. Finally, the lack of a long-term tenure track makes finances deeply uncertain for talents who can get a better deal elsewhere.

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Denmark is regularly classed as one of world’s happiest nations, yet falls behind when it comes to making top talents in STEM research happy.

“Denmark was not on my map before I got here. I knew very little about the country and the stories I heard were about racism and high taxes, not about great research. Once I got here it took 1,5 years before someone asked me out for a coffee."
the challenge

The Danish STEM-research environment is highly cited and attracts a large number of international applicants for grants. However, reports state that there is an unfulfilled potential for Denmark to attract and retain the absolute top talent in this research context.

VILLUM FONDEN, who is already a major contributor to the research environment in Denmark, wanted to investigate this unfulfilled potential and find out how they could make even greater use of their funding to strengthen the Danish research ecosystem.

the approach

By using participant observations and ethnographic interviews, we deeply embedded ourselves in the field of STEM research, shadowing both Danish and international top talents, to gain a first-hand look into their daily lives.

We met with them during breakfast, biked to work, participated in meetings and made dinner after work, all to get a holistic understanding of their needs, challenges, and what defines the choices they make in everyday life. Additionally, roundtable conversations were used to map out the common and individual barriers to choosing a career in Danish research. This deep dive was supported with contextual knowledge through expert interviews, best practice visits at European universities, as well as creative workshops with university administration and international offices.

“IS IT A BIRD has given the researchers a new and different voice through their exploratory approach and engaging stories of the humans behind the scientists. The work of IS IT A BIRD has ensured that we do not just reproduce our own preconceptions and we now have valuable knowledge that enable us to more efficiently support the Danish Universities place Denmark on the map for absolute top talents.”
Thomas Bjørnholm, Director of science, Villum Fonden
The Result

We designed actionable concepts to support and enhance the Danish research environment.

The professional journey of a researcher is financially uncertain, and a multitude of skills are required to progress up the career ladder. When it comes to deciding on where to take this journey, Denmark is not seen as a top destination to establish a research career. International top talents who do set out to establish roots in Denmark, characterise the process as challenging for themselves and their families.

Danish society and the research environment make it difficult for families to settle in and establish a life, as Danes do not seem open to including newcomers in their social network. We addressed this issue with specific initiatives to give the top talents a taste of the Danish milieu and atmosphere and alleviated the obstacles in establishing a life, with family packages that would ease the transition into their new culture and society. There is also a potential in minimising the financial uncertainty by offering long term tenure tracks. VILLUM FONDEN followed all seven of our key recommended initiatives, and assigned 16 million Danish Kroner to family packages.

Read the full report at this link.

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Villum Fonden

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