Norway’s research with China endures

Profiles of Norwegian science


Photo: Ilan Kelman
People fish in Beijing despite water pollution.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Continents and cultures apart, Norway and China nonetheless maintain a strong scientific bond. Research cooperation between the two countries is epitomized by Geir Inge Orderud, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research (NIBR) in Oslo.

Orderud knows China well. Born in Drammen and spending his formative years in Hønefoss, he first visited China in 2004 to prepare for a cooperative venture with a think tank in Haikou, the provincial capital of Hainan Island.

Since then, he has shuttled back and forth, spending months at a time in his second home, building partnerships, completing research, and publishing world-class papers. He explains that “Learning about and trying to understand the diversity of China’s socio-natural conditions and processes has been the basic driver for engaging with China.” Since he is not fluent in Chinese, he works mainly with English-speaking Chinese researchers.

Orderud’s work covers both social science and physical science, demonstrating how to cross boundaries—of countries and disciplines. He was part of an interdisciplinary research project headed by the University of Oslo’s Professor Rolf Vogt, examining how agricultural fertilizer runoff into Chinese watersheds leads to unnatural algae and plant growth.

Another research field is social justice regarding climate-change consequences. Additionally, he led a project on developing spatial classification systems, aiming to improve regional policymaking and evaluation.

Most research support comes from Norway’s government. Norway’s Embassy in Beijing has funded some projects, as has the Research Council of Norway. Their “Research Cooperation with China” program, abbreviated to CHINOR, was launched in 2009 and continues today.

Just about a year after CHINOR’s official start, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo. Since a Norwegian committee, staffed by former politicians appointed by the parliament, decides who wins the prize, which is then awarded in Oslo, China’s government took this as a direct affront.

China-Norway official diplomatic relations were severely affected, with retaliatory measures imposed, including more cumbersome visa procedures. Nevertheless, CHINOR’s research continued with scientists from the two countries visiting each other, continuing joint investigations, and publishing together on environmental topics in China. Diplomatic ties were normalized toward the end of 2016.

Orderud notes that his environmental research continued uninhibited, but “Our high-level participation in the project on regional classification systems was terminated, causing strategic changes, although in the end, the results were approved by high-level national users.” In this period, he published with Chinese colleagues on environmental actions and consequences in the Yuqiao Reservoir in Tianjin, as well as fairness and justice regarding environmental topics. Due to the icy diplomatic relations, funding of Norwegian research in China diminished but then fully resumed after 2016.

In addition to the political ups and downs, Orderud has weathered changes at NIBR. In September 2016, his institute became part of the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, which in January 2018 changed its name to Oslo Metropolitan University. Orderud’s main collaboration in China is with Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Since 2013, he has been a visiting professor at Hebei University of Science and Technology, giving regular teaching sessions.

Teamwork across continents is a principal ingredient in the scientific successes. Orderud was a member of the SINCIERE consortium, which stands for “Sino-Norwegian Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Research.” Funded by the Research Council of Norway and member institutes, it was jointly managed by Chinese and Norwegian academic staff and ran from 2006 to 2016, after which it became an informal network. The SINCIERE office in Beijing was headed by Rigmor Johnsen, who is fluent in Chinese and has in-depth knowledge of China after more than 30 years of experience in and with the country.

SINCIERE’s remit was mainly environmental topics within a wider sustainable development framing, for advising and facilitating decisionmakers in China. Interdisciplinary approaches ensured that scientific results contributed to policy. By forging and maintaining connections between China and Norway, SINCIERE built networks and fostered research cooperation.

For Orderud, SINCIERE enriched his collaborations, creating links and opportunities to pursue assessments of and actions for the changing environment in China. He describes how “During my stays in Beijing, visiting the SINCIERE office provided working space, as well as research contacts.”

Nevertheless, his research is not confined to China. Orderud is an international expert on environmental governance in Norway. His publications range from Norwegian mayors’ attitudes about action on climate change to analyses of the home building-industrial network.

Despite the distance, Norway has provided plenty of practical science for and with China. And, in return, it has gained immensely by improving Norwegian science within Norway.

This article originally appeared in the September 21, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II 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. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.