Honouring the long standing and fruitful research collaboration between Iceland and Denmark

Research collaboration lies at the heart of HM Queen Margrethe II‘s and Former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir‘s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ocean, Climate and Society (ROCS). The research Centre was established in April 2020 by the Carlsberg Foundation in collaboration with the Icelandic state, and is a tribute to HM Queen Margrethe II and former president Vigdís Finnbogardóttir on their landmark birthdays.

Photo credit: Angela Rawlings
Photo: Angela Rawlings

The Centre is supported with a funding from the Carlsberg Foundation, as well as grants from The Icelandic Centre for Research, and the Icelandic state which marks the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Republic of Iceland in 2019 with its contribution.  ROCS is led by Professor Katherine Richardson and fosters leading edge research and seeks empirical grounding in Icelandic nature and society to engage with relationships between climate, ecosystem structure and societies. The research Centre also provides a platform for collaborations that traverse the traditional disciplinary boundaries to collectively create new knowledge for the future.

As highlighted by both Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Prime Minister of Iceland on the occasion of ROCS‘s inauguration, the establishment of the Centre honours a long standing tradition of Danish-Icelandic research collaboration and offers grounds to strengthen existing networks and forge new ones. On the same occasion, Professor Flemming Besenbacher, Chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation stated: „Denmark and Iceland have a strong friendship and long and proud traditions of scientific collaboration, which the Carlsberg Foundation has contributed to in many different contexts historically.“ Since its establishment in 1876, the Carlsberg Foundation has been instrumental in its support for Danish-Icelandic collaborations. Founded by the brewery owner J. C Jacobsen, the Carlsberg Foundation was groundbreaking in its support for the natural sciences, humanities and social sciences for the benefit of society (tilvitnun). This vision of excellence and investment in the future  persists to this day, was a driving force for scientific collaboration between Denmark and Iceland that has transcended shifts in historical relations between the two countries. 

Supporting Icelandic research since 1883

Only a few years after its foundation, in 1883, Björn M. Ólsen, an academic and later professor in Icelandic and rector of the University of Iceland, became the first Icelander to receive a grant from the Carlsberg Foundation in Denmark. The grant was assigned to research on Modern Icelandic and grammar, among other things in preparation of a dictionary of Modern Icelandic.[i] A number of grants extending to diverse fields of research and Icelandic nature and culture were to follow, spanning from literature, botany, ichthyology, and glaciology to Icelandic folk music, history, and human nutrition in Iceland.  Included on the list of grant recipients and their projects is the seminal Icelandic-Danish dictionary created by Sigfús Blöndal and his first wife Björg C. Þorláksson, and published in 1920-1924.[ii]  The vicenary venture of preparing the dictionary was supported by the Icelandic government and the Carlsberg Foundation. Although official records state that Dr. Blöndal, who was a librarian at the Royal Library in Copenhagen and later taught Modern Icelandic at the University of Copenhagen, was the recipient of these grants, the research and preparation for the dictionary was a joint project between himself and Björg C. Þorláksson. She later became the first Icelandic woman to receive a doctorate[iii].

Theirs was, moreover, not the only  project that was funded by the Carlsberg Foundation and the Icelandic state. Although these grants were predominantly awarded in tandem, the collaborative value can be found in the projects and which would hardly have reached the fruition, exemplified by a plethora of valuable data and publications, without these mutual involvements. One of many examples is Þorvaldur Thoroddsen‘s research on Iceland‘s contemporary and historical geology and geography. Initially supported by the Icelandic state, his research was the first organized research on the whole country‘s geology and geography, including remote, uninhabited areas. With substantial funding from the Carlsberg Foundation, Dr. Thoroddsen would research and publish several volumes on Iceland‘s geography and geographical history making him one of the most copious academic writers on Icelandic nature of his time. Throughout, the Carlsberg Foundation has also supported publications that involve research on Icelandic nature and terrain, including the Botany of Iceland and the Zoology of Iceland.i

Growing Danish - Icelandic partnerships

A more recent example of Danish and Icelandic collaboration, that provides a platform for wider relationships, is Pétur M. Jónasson‘s fundamental research on freshwater biology in Icelandic lakes. Scholar at the Freshwater Biological Laboratory at the University of Copenhagen and later Professor of freshwater biology at the University of Copenhagen, Dr. Jónasson was commissioned by the Icelandic government to lead research at Lake Mývatn which resulted in a publication funded by the Carlsberg Foundation in 1974. The following year the Icelandic Parliament (Alþingi) and the Freshwater Biological Laboratory collaborated to instigate extensive research on the biology and ecology of Lake Þingvallavatn led by Dr. Jónasson. The project has been substantially funded by the Carlsberg Foundation with the Icelandic Parliament as well as Icelandic and Nordic institutions.i

Although numerous projects funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, were instigated and led by Icelandic scholars, many were in the hands of Danish academics who sought empirical grounding in Icelandic culture, society and nature. These included archaeological research, avian research, and glacial research, to name a few. Daniel Bruun‘s late 19th and early 20th century pioneering research on archaeology and cultural heritage, including structural types of houses and buildings in Iceland, deserves mention in this context. Bruun became interested in Icelandic rural culture which he saw as a mine of objects and information about Icelandic society and ways of life that teetered on the edge of old and new circumstances. With strong ties to the National Museum of Denmark, Bruun soon became one of the most productive researchers on Icelandic heritage and culture of his time. Part of his research in Iceland was conducted in collaboration with Finnur Jónsson, an Icelandic scholar in Old Icelandic and Old Norse literary history but combining their insights these two scholars surveyed archaeological remains, including ancient farmsteads, places of commerce, places of legislative assemly and pagan graves.i [iv]

Relationships of this nature extend even further back. Early on, Denmark and Iceland were tied through various historical and polical connections which also lay the ground work for collaborative efforts and the collection of data, and which coincided with exceeding engagements with science, philosophical inquiry (including both society and nature) and intellectual progress for the improvement of society and individual lives. Following the Reformation, the University of Copenhagen was a primary place of study for Icelanders seeking higher education, a practice that contributed to a plethora of networks and collaborative research, with Danish support, to the early 20th century with research on Icelandic nature and culture (some led by Icelanders) extending to this day.

Eggert and Bjarni’s 18th century travelogue

Two interesting examples emerge: In 1752 The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters sponsored two students at the University of Copenhagen, Eggert Ólafsson and Bjarni Pálsson, to travel around Iceland and gather empirical evidence about the country‘s nature, culture and society. The research, that lasted five years, resulted in a travelogue that provides valuable and interesting information on Icelandic nature, flora and fauna as well as the people, their vernacular tongue and ways of life, but also conveys insight into scientific research in Iceland at the time.[i] Another interesting collaborative project in the early 19th century is the gathering of climotological information around Iceland which was supported by the The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. The research was instigated by the Copenhagen based Icelandic Literary Society member, poet, and naturalist Jónas Hallgrímsson in collaboration with the Danish natural scientist Japeturs Steensstrup, and was intended to be part of an extensive description of Icelandic customs and local conditions.i To support the project, the donation from the Royal Danish Academy included forty-five thermometers that were to be dispersed throughout the country for more exact temperature measurements.[ii] The results of these measurements and descriptive journals written by various officials around the country were never officially published, but remain preserved at National and University Library of Iceland while numerous samples from Icelandic nature were made part of the Natural History Museum of Denmark‘s collection.

Investing in partnerships and producing cutting-edge research

The projects mentioned above by no means provide a full overview of how Danish and Icelandic academics and funding opportunities have joined forces in both Icelandic and Danish research projects. They are, however, meant to give a basic illustration of the constellations of relationships that comprise a past remembered and honoured by the foundation of HM Queen Margrethe II‘s and Former President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir‘s Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ocean, Climate and Society. At ROCS, a number of established researchers and academics, as well as post-doctoral fellows from both Denmark and Iceland come together in transdisciplinary networks of research where the laboratorial conditions present in Iceland provide fertile ground for mapping and creating unique understandings about the relationships between climate and ecosystems, and their reciprocal effects to societies. As Professor Katherine Richardson has noted:

“We know, of course, that climate effects biodiversity, because we know some species have come and gone in historical times. But so far, we haven‘t the opportunity to look into how entire ecosystems change due to climate change. Now, genetic methods exist, that make it possible to map entire ecosystems. For the first time, we can map how ecosystems, both on land and at sea, changed in relation to climate change. We can also look at how changes that currently are happening in the ecosystem actually affect people.”