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Two grant programmes under the microscope: learning from the past and looking to the future

An evaluation of two Novo Nordisk Foundation grant programmes has revealed some big successes and some areas for improvement. As a result, there are important changes to the Laureate Research Grant and the Young Investigator Award. 

Since 2012, more than 30 top scientists from around the world have moved to Denmark to embark on ambitious seven-year projects thanks to the Laureate and Young Investigator programmes, boosting their individual careers while strengthening the Danish research landscape and promoting international collaborations.  

The programmes support excellent researchers who bring innovative approaches to the study of complex biological challenges. Laureate recipients are established scientists who receive DKK 50 million (EUR 6.7 million) for large-scale projects with transformative potential. The Young Investigator grants, worth up to DKK 25 million (EUR 3.4 million) each, are awarded to top researchers at an earlier stage in their career but who are ready to take on an ambitious project. These long-term, large-scale, flexible grants are among very few of their kind in Denmark. 

Grant recipients have made ‘significant impact’
A recent evaluation of both schemes found many successes to celebrate. Recipients have made major contributions to their fields, Danish research has advanced, and universities have benefitted. 

Hans Bräuner, Vice-dean for Research at the University of Copenhagen, has seen this first hand.  

“The Novo Nordisk Foundation Laureates at the University of Copenhagen have made significant impact,” he said. “They have built up internationally recognised groups based on the grant and have subsequently been very successful, publishing in high-impact journals, winning prestigious prizes and receiving further highly competitive grants.” 

According to Bräuner, the programme has also helped make the university more attractive to top researchers from around the world, helped drive rapid advances in research and helped propel the university up the international rankings. 

New funding structures
The evaluation of the Laureate and Young Investigator programmes also highlighted some shortcomings. As a result of the findings, plus broader developments in Danish research, there are changes to the programmes. 

Both have attracted few applications from biotechnology researchers, despite being open to this field as well as biomedicine, and the number of applicants to the Young Investigator programme has in general been lower than expected. 

Going forward, the Laureate programme is therefore only open to biomedical applicants. International researchers in biotechnology are instead invited to apply through the Foundation’s RECRUIT programme, which has attracted top researchers in the natural and technical sciences since 2020 and will now be expanded. Half of the current Laureate budget has therefore been moved to RECRUIT, leaving one Laureate grant awarded per year in biomedicine. The grant amount remains the same: up to DKK 50 million (EUR 6.7 million) over seven years. 

Early career biotechnology researchers are also invited to apply for funds via the RECRUIT programme, with half of the current Young Investigator Award budget being moved to that programme. The other half of the budget has been moved to the Foundation’s successful Research Leader Programme (RLP), which supports top researchers at various stages of their careers with five-year grants. From 2024, a further DKK 50 million is available in the Bioscience and Basic Biomedicine category of the RLP, with the primary aim of supporting international recruitment in the Ascending Investigator category, for example, by offering supplementary funds to researchers needing to relocate across borders.  

Consequently, no further Young Investigator Awards will be granted, and early-career researchers in biotechnology or biomedicine are invited to apply to the RECRUIT or RLP programmes instead. 

Further changes to the Laureate programme
There are two additional changes to the Laureate Research Grant from 2024. 

Firstly, researchers already in Denmark – of any nationality – are now eligible to apply. Since its inception, the programme has only been open to researchers outside Denmark, but, since Danish biomedical research is in a much stronger position than a decade ago, it is becoming increasingly important to retain as well as recruit top researchers.

Secondly, the application and selection process is changing. From now on, potential host institutions are invited to submit an initial letter of intent, helping ensure strong links between Laureate grant recipients and both their host institution and the broader Danish biomedical research environment. Selected candidates are subsequently invited to submit a full application, which is subject to external peer review. 

Forging ahead
“Any changes we make to our programmes are based on data and on a drive to always improve our initiatives and respond to the ever-changing research landscape,” says Birgitte Holst, Scientific Director in Biomedicine at the Novo Nordisk Foundation. 

“For example, by moving some funds from the Young Investigator programme to the Research Leader Programme, we will be able to compare applications more easily within biomedicine and ensure that it’s always the best applicants who are awarded grants. 

“And through the changes to the Laureate programme, we hope to forge even stronger links between the most talented scientists and research institutions here in Denmark and abroad, laying the groundwork for truly transformative research that can improve the health of people around the world.” 

Initial applications for the 2024 Laureate Research Grant are open until 16 November 2023. The RECRUIT and Research Leader Programmes open for applications during October 2023. Find more information on the Foundation’s Grants in open competition page. 

Further information

Judith Vonberg
Communications Specialist
+45 4172 7925 [email protected]