Danish Nature Council – the Background.

A brief presentation by Chairman Peder Agger.


A new advisory council, the so-called Nature Council (Naturrådet), was formed by the Minister of Environment and Energy in February 1998. It is an independent body consisting of four high ranking scientists coming from the natural sciences and physical planning. This may give the impression that it is a board that should be neutral and scientifically objective. However, even if scientific objectivity existed, and could be achieved, the Council's functions are to be carried out within a policy-forming context.

The Council is expected to take a prominent role in setting the national agenda for the debate on the sustainable development of the wildlife, the environment and the landscape. Therefore, it is important to discuss how the task should be interpreted.

The Council's own interpretation points in the direction of what may be called an enlightened subjectivity, where the scientific background and the value judgements are both made explicit, and where things are seen in a more cautious, broad, and far-sighted context than by the other stakeholders in the environmental debate.


There have been strong ties between nature conservation and the natural sciences in Denmark for more than a hundred years. In the late 19th century, like in many other countries, the natural scientific clubs at the university in Copenhagen was a focal point for interest in the protection of flora, fauna and the landscape.

Also other groups in society strongly supported the idea of nature conservation. This sprang from the interests in keeping scenic landscapes free from (foreign owned) second homes and a wish to give the growing urban population access to the countryside.

A benchmark in this development was the first Nature Conservation Act. It came into force in 1917, and a scientific advisory board was included from the beginning.

Since that time there have been both formal and informal bodies in Denmark that have channelled natural scientific information, and academic views, into conservation policy. The governments have had their advisory boards and the large Danish Society for Nature Conservation has had its own scientific committee.

Ever since, it has been obvious that nature conservation in our little and densely populated country had to have a natural scientific and a social political dimension, although they, as we shall come back to, increasingly overlap and thus are difficult to keep separate. In addition, science and expertise have been increasingly politicised.

Another observation is the quantitative growth in the number of professionals advising the government and its institutions along with the increase in intensity in land use and the environment and the problems stemming from these processes. The development has accelerated during the last 2–3 decades. Society, including nature management and conservation, are consequently increasingly being expertised.

A third observation is that along with the increasing complexity of our societies there are processes of globalisation and thus growing interdependence among nations. Nature management and conservation are thus increasingly being globalised.

Together with these trends it has day by day become more necessary for the politicians, e.g., Ministers of Nature and Environment, to have access to independent expertise, i.e., professional forums in order to be able to manoeuvre safely between all the other stakeholders in green issues.

This development gives more importance to science, but at the same time it threatens the ideal of objectivity. This leads us to the question: Is establishing independent scientific councils the right answer?

Terms of Reference (TOR)

In accordance with the Nature Protection Act, it is possible for the Minister to establish advisory councils covering the field of the act. After being negotiated in the Parliamentary Commission on Environment and Planning, the Nature Council was formed by the Minister of Environment and Energy on February 16th, 1998.

Like in its predecessors, the Nature Protection Board (1988–1996) and the Nature Conservancy Council (1917–1988), its members, so-called wise men, were drawn from the universities' natural scientific faculties. Although the number of members was decreased from 12 down to 3 or 4, the official task has still been to advise the Minister concerning nature conservation issues which have natural scientific, and more recently, physical planning aspects.

In the terms of reference it is stated that

It is stated further that:

Let us come back to how we interpret these terms, but first here is a presentation of the Council's structure.

Structure and Function

It is stated that the Council should consist of 3 to 5 (there currently are 4) highly qualified independent scientists recruited from the non-ministerial part of the scientific community, e.g., professors of ecology, botany, zoology, geology, geography, physical planning, and landscape architecture.

The Minister designates the members for a period of three years. The Council recommends to the Minister who should be designated. The Minister decides who should be the chairperson, with the title of Chief Wise Man.

Further, the Minister designates a board of approximately 40 representatives for a three-year term with possibility of another three years. These are recruited from four segments of the society: government authorities, commercial interest groups, NGOs, and science. The members are formally selected by the Minister from among the proposals given by the organisations and, for the scientists, proposals given by the Nature Council.

The board should discuss the reports from the Council and propose which other issues should be taken up. Their tasks are, however, somewhat contradictory, since it is also stated that the Board has no competence to influence the work of the wise men, which means that the Board has only an advisory function to the Council.

For the support of the wise men, and with reference to the Council, a small secretariat is established as an independent part of the Ministry. The staff is a team consisting of a Director of Secretariat, three other academic specialists, and a secretary. The secretariat should assist the Council in collecting and synthesising documentation, arranging meetings, editing reports etc.

An annual budget of 5 million Danish Crowns (670,000 ECU) should cover running costs for the secretariat, meetings, travel expenses, publications, and salaries including 80–100,000 DKK of compensation to each of the wise men or their institutions (100,000 DKK for the chairman).

Our interpretation of TOR

It is obvious that the independence of the Council is crucial. The other stakeholders, such as those represented in the board of representatives, the press, and politicians, all have their ministers', members', customers', and supporters' interests to take care of. A council giving the highest explicit reference to scientific judgement might fill a gap, which could be beneficial for the public discussion and from time to time helpful for the politicians as well.

This is not to say that such independence will lead to objectivity that can tell us what things really are - the truth. Scientific objectivity does not exist. Scientific facts cannot purely be taken as the truth, because they, as pointed out by Turner & Wynne, are always embedded in a value-based context.

But saying that true objectivity does not exist, is not the same as saying that objectivity is not something to aim at. Although it may present some difficulties, because advisory councils set by ministers are created as an integrated part of a policy-forming context.

"Policy-making is in fact to be analysed as the creation of problems, that is to say, policy-making can be analysed as a set of practices that are meant to process fragmented and contradictory statements to be able to create the sort of problems that institutions can handle and for which solutions can be found." (Hajer, 1995)

This wonderful little statement, taken from Maarten Hajer by some of my students, tells, in a nutshell, what it is all about. Advisory councils created by ministers should contribute to policy-making by creating the sort of problems that institutions can handle if not today then tomorrow. And scientific advisory councils should do this emphasising what science has to say about current issues.

This can be done in a more or less active way. The Council may either sit and wait for questions to be raised by others, or it may actively look for issues to be put on the agenda. Councils that choose the first position and have a basis where the policy aspect is implicit, come close to the (no longer durable) ideal of an objective trustworthy board. Councils like ours who actively want to raise issues themselves, and for whom the policy aspect explicitly is stated in their constitutional basis, might be in a more difficult situation by openly, but maybe also more honestly, admitting that they are a component in the political setting.

The way in which we interpret our job description is therefore that the Council literally should work at a more fundamental level than all the others, as deep as possible. Furthermore, it should be more cautious and more far-sighted than others should. And definitely more than the other stakeholders, it should stick to the scientific basis and be explicit about where the always-inevitable value judgement of any kind comes in. We may call this a sort of enlightened subjectivity.

The best these councils can do then is to be aware of that.


The Danish Nature Council has been active for three years now. The second set of wise men has been designated, the secretariat is functioning, and the board of representatives follows activities. Although the setting superficially resembles a totally independent objective board, it is clear from the terms of reference and the interpretation given by the designated wise men, that the Nature Council is an element of policy-making, an actor in the conservation discourse. The best the Council might do is to be conscious and explicit about this role. In this way the raison d'être for an independent scientific advisory board may survive also into the next century.

The present Council consists of

Peder Agger (Chairman),  Professor of Environmental Planning with special reference to biological ressources at the Dept. of Environment, Technology and Society of Roskilde University.

Bent Aaby,  Honorary professor at the Botanical Institute, University of Copenhagen, and chief curator in the Natural Science Research Unit of the National Museum of Denmark.

Per Christensen, Associate professor at the Department of Development and Planning, Aalborg University.

Anettte Reenberg,  Professor in Agricultural Geography at the Institute of Geography, University of Copenhagen.

Examples of arrangements organised by the Danish Nature Council

On 1st of December 2000, the Danish Nature Council organised a workshop under the title "National Strategies for Nature Protection and Biodiversity – International Experiences".

A workshop on policy integration in the Agenda 2000 CAP regulations was hosted by the Council in January 1999.

A follow-up agri-environment workshop was held in Copenhagen in June 1999.

Publications in Danish

Documents in English

Reports and the documents above can be read in the Council homepage Reports can be purchased in Miljøbutikken (the bookshop of the Danish Ministry of Environment and Energy, Tel. +45-33 95 40 00)

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