Profiles of Norwegian science: Social science research institutes evaluated

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Inside the Research Council of Norway building in Lysaker.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Do Norwegian social science research institutes provide value for the country? A report published in February explores this question.

The report concludes that the research institutes are a strong asset for Norway. They provide policy- and society-relevant research, having a positive impact on the country.

The report’s recommendations suggest taking a more strategic approach to the institutes. The funding structure is especially concerning. With universities in Norway being encouraged to bring in funded projects while the private sector increases its research capability, what role remains for research institutes?

The report also recognized the importance for research of providing career opportunities and access to information resources. Supporting early career researchers is an investment that reaps rewards, but it might not always seem cost-effective for research institutes to invest in PhD students. Meanwhile, e-library access is expensive yet essential for conducting research.

A balance is needed between international and national relevance. The research institutes are assumed to be set up to serve Norway. Yet significant research funding is available from sources outside of Norway. International engagement can lead to international recognition, improving research quality, and applicability.

The evaluation noted the research institutes’ diversity. Out of the 23 institutes included in the report, one is a government agency, 12 are limited companies, and 10 are foundations. Size ranges from 15 to 80 full-time-equivalent research staff.

The institutes are scattered throughout the country, especially because nine are regionally focused and so they sit in their region of interest. The four institutes labeled as being internationally oriented include two in Oslo, one in Lysaker, and one in Bergen. The others are “welfare and society institutes,” said to have mainly a national focus.

All these differences mean that meeting varying needs requires creativity. No single solution exists for science. People and topics work in different ways. The variations mean that the work in the research institutes can be matched to different governmental and societal needs.

But what of science? The research institute structures and mandates tend to be shaped by the needs of government ministries. Many competitive calls from the Research Council of Norway target government priorities.

This has positive dimensions. Since the taxpayer funds research, it is fair that the research serves the taxpayer. Following government needs supports accountability to those who fund the research.

This statement assumes that government reflects society. In democracies, this assumption is generally fair. How much of it is correct depends on the specific democracy and the specific government.

Disadvantages can emerge if a research funding structure is directed too much towards policy needs. By definition, a democratically elected government is rarely supported by all of society. A government could shape research programs to appeal to a core constituency or to focus on an ideological platform.

A researcher’s role should include offering independent and critiquing advice. Not all governments desire this role’s fulfillment. Would a research institute closely controlled by a Ministry hesitate to criticize authority based on scientific evidence?

As an example, the current system for allocating core funding to the institutes is praised in the evaluation report. The report indicates that this framework should be retained but that implementation could be truer to the stated aims.

Yet it is not fully clear from the report how the core funding system might support or disadvantage cutting-edge, basic science. Is independent, critical thinking encouraged by the core funding allocation? Or perhaps this form of science does not sit within the research institutes’ mandates.

The evaluation report does not delve deeply into these ethical and operational queries. They were mainly outside the evaluation’s scope.

The report does tackle political issues of mergers and quality control. A tricky balance exists between freedom and accountability. The evaluation seems satisfied with this balance overall but is also reflective and honest about needs for monitoring and improvement.

More understanding of the strategies for and governance of social science research institutes is particularly important. The report opts to leave many such questions open for further investigation.

Science should be key to any country’s future and its contributions to the world. As the evaluation report demonstrates, Norway’s social science research institutes support evidence-based policy. It is up to the government to strengthen this vital contribution to Norwegian and international society and to ensure science’s independence.

Ilan Kelman (www.ilankelman.org and Twitter @Ilan­­­Kelman) is a Reader in Risk, Resilience, and Global Health at University College London, England, and a fellow at the 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 April 21, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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