Creativity or conformity?

Profiles of Norwegian science

Ilan Kelman research

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Collaborative research on and about Frøya, near Trondheim.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Does Norway discourage world-class science? Are mediocrity and conformity preferred over sterling scientific achievement?

From the numbers of Norwegian research teams seeking research funding, it might be hard to answer “yes” to either of these questions. Especially if the tenet “quantity is a form of quality” is accepted.

In October, the Research Council of Norway received 728 applications for the NOK 1.5 billion available for topics ranging from nanotechnology to petroleum to sustainable transport. In September, 999 applications sought a share of the NOK 1.6 billion up for grabs, which included questions defined by the researcher applying, not by the Research Council.

These figures do not include applications sent to other science funders, most notably the European Union. Plus, Norwegian researchers seek a range of other funding, including through consultancies or science supported by the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors.

Several of these applications focus on group projects involving consortia of institutions. Other research grants exist from Norway and from outside the country for individual researchers to pursue their science dreams on their own. Many of these individual grant programs support early career researchers, helping them to develop their thinking for creating their own research pathways.

The expectation, particularly within Norway’s system of research funding, is that any scientist will eventually transition to collaborative, large-scale projects rather than continuing with individual sparks satiating their own curiosity in their own way. Large-scale international endeavors, aiming for groupthink consensus, are favored over individuals independently following their imagination.

Pooling resources and brainstorming collectively can bring advantageous checks and balances. Teamwork can stimulate members through bouncing ideas back and forth while building on each other’s ingenuity.

Careful facilitation is essential. Those with the loudest voice, not necessarily the most correct or most intelligent one, sometimes dominate. Shy, cautious, introverted brilliance could be extinguished.

Some people enjoy isolation, sitting at their desk to use their brains and 21st-century technology for thinking, inspiring, communicating, exchanging, and collaborating. Project meetings and scientific workshops entail travel, detracting from family life while burning fossil fuels.

Conversely, trips broaden the mind through new experiences, triggering flashes of insight. Face-to-face interaction animates conversation. Group exercises blend and build expertise. The gains can far exceed the costs.

Ultimately, science must be a balance between individualism and collectivism.

If the pursuit of large grants with multiple partners overtakes time for ourselves, then this balance becomes undermined. We focus on work plans, milestones, deliverables, budget lines, and tick boxes for reports that sit on shelves. It detracts from science and knowledge expressed through presenting and publishing for the world.

We end up conforming and avoiding confrontation rather than thinking differently. We aim to fit in with what everyone else does and how they do it, rather than following our brain cells. If we fail to lower ourselves to the level of the least capable colleague in the room, if we play solo by sniffing out a less-traveled route from pure curiosity, then we are not supporting the team.

Too often, intellectually risky pursuits and deviations from the plan submitted a few years ago in the initial proposal are frowned upon. Robust debate and intense critiquing are discouraged as being too negative and too critical, even though these actions are the hallmarks of innovation.

Never challenge the system or deviate from the majority. Otherwise, punishment awaits.

Yet is it fair to claim a curse on being creative in Norway? The Research Council of Norway provides multiple grants for large, project-based consortia, as does the European Union. Both also support grants for individuals, especially for young researchers with numerous opportunities to spend time outside of one’s home country.

The key, as always, is variety and balance. For science, no single solution dominates or should dominate. We need a combination of independent work, small groups, and large teams.

Working together does not have to mean conformity. Seeking a balance of viewpoints and compromise does not have to mean mediocrity. By continuing to push and pull in many directions simultaneously, Norway will continue to achieve world-class science.

Ilan Kelman (www.ilankelman.org and Twitter@IlanKelman) is a Reader at Risk, Resilience, and Global Health at University College London, and a fellow at University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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