10 September 2019

3 researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute receive grants from Villum Fonden


VILLUM FONDEN awards DKK 98.5 million in grants to 52 bold research projects within the technical and natural sciences. For the third year running, VILLUM FONDEN has selected innovative research projects to receive funding as part of the Villum Experiment programme. The programme, according to science director Thomas Bjørnholm, seeks to reward scientists who question conventional thinking. Three researchers from the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, Anders Svensson, Aslak Grindsted and Namiko Mitarai each receive grants for their inventive projects.

Anders Svensson

The whisper of ancient air bubbles in polar ice:

The bubbles trapped in the ice sheet in Greenland’s ice cap give off sound when broken. The sound gives an indication of how much air is trapped in the ice, which is an indicator of the altitude at which the ice was formed.

The results of the project may make it possible to measure changes in the height of the ice cap during the past 10,000 years and, in so doing, give us a better understanding of how Greenland’s climate has changed.

Aslak Grindsted

Noble gases and Earths energy budget: Global ocean heat content is a key climate indicator as it directly integrates Earths energy balance, but the oceans are large and measuring ocean temperatures globally to full depth is challenging. Atmospheric mixing ratios of noble gases, Argon, Krypton and Xenon, are a near perfect proxy for global ocean heat content. In this project, we will identify and obtain suitable sealed containers of old air, develop a sample extraction system, and measure the noble gas mixing ratios. Our aim is to make a well dated reconstruction of global ocean heat content since 1850. This record will provide strong constraints on Earth system models, and sea level rise.

Namiko Mitarai

Bacteria approaching zero growth: Continuous or Discontinuous Phase Transition? Some bacteria can divide as fast as every 20 minutes, while in suboptimal conditions the population averaged doubling time of the same bacteria can be as slow as 20 hours. At more severe conditions, bacteria will not be able to sustain steady-state growth and will enter dormancy. But how does this transition from slow growth to dormancy happen? This project aims to characterize the growth to no growth transition experimentally and theoretically in terms of phase transition.

It is all about challenging traditional thinking

“The bold idea that you might not dare to mention aloud may challenge acclaimed research even though it doesn’t fit into the conventional peer-review funding system,” Bjørnholm says.

Villum Experiment funds exceptional science and technology research projects that challenge norms and have the potential to fundamentally alter our approach to important topics in science and technology.

Anonymous applicants

In keeping with the spirit of the programme, Villum Experiment takes a different approach than other funding mechanisms when selecting grant recipients.

Applications are submitted anonymously and the proposed research is assessed by an international panel of 20 external experts without taking the applicants’ professional or academic qualifications into account.

“You need to make room for radical and bold research, as well as an alternative to peer-review when selecting who gets funding. We can use the anonymous selection process to help make sure the wild and offbeat ideas get tested,” Bjørnholm says.

“It takes a healthy dose of self-confidence to try something that goes against the standard way of assessing which projects – and which scientists – get funded and instead fund the projects that challenge the norm, but which may turn out to be the best idea. Some of the projects are bound not to lead anywhere, but it only takes one wild idea to change the world.”

Experimental programme

VILLUM FONDEN will continue to provide funding through the Villum Experiment programme for the foreseeable future. At the same time, it will be keeping a close eye on its outcomes.

A survey of grant recipients, according to Bjørnholm, indicates that being allowed to apply anonymously meant their ideas were considered seriously, and that without the grants they would never have been able to test them.

VILLUM FONDEN recently began a research project to evaluate the results of the anonymous application process. The project is currently in the data-collection phase. The final report is expected in 2024.

“It will take several years for us to know for sure whether the anonymity afforded by the programme actually does make more room for new ideas. But, because Villum Experiment is different than established programmes it is important for us to begin collecting data now, so we have it and can evaluate it in a few years and find out whether the programme lives up to its goal of giving unorthodox ideas the chance to become reality.”