Norway sends 250-strong research delegation to China

Norway’s Minister of Research and Higher Education, Iselin Nybø, led a huge delegation of university leaders and scientists on a visit last week to Beijing and Shanghai, to deepen Norwegian-Chinese research cooperation. The visit was hosted by China’s Minister of Science and Technology, Wang Zhigang.

The scale of the delegation is unprecedented – Nybø was accompanied by a formal delegation of 23 university and other science institution leaders and 225 scientists.

The programme was organised by the Norwegian Centre for International Cooperation in Education (SIU) and the Research Council of Norway on behalf of the Ministry of Education and Research.

John-Arne Røttingen, director general of the Research Council of Norway, told University World News ahead of the visit: “The delegation headed by Minister Nybø and with representation from most Norwegian higher education institutions and some research institutes will be an important opportunity to strengthen Chinese and Norwegian research collaboration.

“China is now the second-largest research nation and has many institutions with strong capabilities. The aim for the Research Council of Norway is to facilitate the establishment of collaboration within fields of common interest like digitalisation, clean energy, carbon capture and storage, aquaculture, agriculture, ocean, climate, environmental and polar research.”

The Research Council of Norway provided a 'book of seminars’ on its webpage giving background details in English on the delegation’s programme and introducing a ‘roadmap for cooperation on research and education with China’.

Beyond state-of-the-art

The extensive programme included themes such as ‘open innovation as a driving force for sustainable cities’, ‘polar research seminars’, ‘heath, welfare and social innovation’ and ‘innovation in photovoltaics for the clean future’.

On 18 April an ‘education day’ was organised by the Chinese Education Association for International Exchange, Beijing Normal University and SIU, supported by Universities Norway. Themes focused on ‘labour market relevance and student mobility’, ‘reforming the science curriculum with computing through a culture of learning’ and ‘Sino-Norwegian collaboration in the Arctic’.

The visit was initiated by Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, the predecessor of the present minister, and was a follow-up of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s visit to Beijing last year, which normalised the relations between Norway and China after the ‘frozen years’ in terms of collaboration between China and Norway that followed the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 to Liu Xiaobo, the writer, human rights activist and political prisoner who campaigned against one-party rule in China.

During the past eight years academic relations with China have still been functioning, with many Norwegian universities signing collaborative agreements with Chinese institutions and with several of them developing strategic plans for increased collaboration with Chinese institutions as a consequence of the introduction of a national strategy for supporting this in the Norwegian ministry’s Panorama programme, introduced in 2015.

One example is the University of Bergen whose board recently discussed an action plan for research and higher education collaboration with Chinese institutions, taking as a point of departure three thematic research priorities: marine, climate/energy and global challenges.

The text of the plan says: “As the most population-dense country in the world, China has societal challenges related to urban development, demographic changes, environmental pollution, food security, clean water, health, economic and social differences stronger than most other countries. China therefore is investing massively in science and technology.

“To collaborate with Chinese research- and higher education-relevant institutions we have to understand Chinese society and activate a broad academic participation at the University of Bergen.”

‘Opening doors’

Arriving in Beijing on Sunday 15 April, Professor Mari Sundli Tveit, rector of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and chair of the Norwegian Association of Higher Education Institutions or Universities Norway, said to Universitetsavisa, the magazine of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU): “We are here to open doors, not as tourists.”

She said that as the chair of Universities Norway she would sign an agreement with her Chinese counterpart that would “make it easier to develop collaboration between the institutions. And as rector of NMBU I will also sign agreements that are important for my university,” she said at the time.

Asked by Universitetsavisa if she was not afraid that lack of freedom of speech for academics in China could be ‘transferred’ to Norwegian academics, Sundli Tveit said: “We are of course aware of the challenges related to academic freedom. We come here and enter into the cooperation with our values in the luggage, and we are going to have a strong focus on this.”

The Norwegian delegation has faced criticism from Professor Torger Reve, former rector of BI Norwegian Business School in Oslo, who told Khrono, the Oslo Metropolitan University news magazine, that “the visit looks a little like academic tourism” since NTNU has 33 participants, the University of Bergen 27, the University of Oslo 21 and Oslo Metropolitan University 15.

Reve said, however, that during his 20 years of collaboration with Chinese researchers he had never experienced any forms of censorship or interventions by the authorities.

Minister Nybø has strongly defended the reason for visiting China with such a large delegation. In an article in the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, she argued that China could soon overtake the United States as an important research nation.

This argument was further elaborated on in a discussion broadcast on the Norwegian evening news programme, in which she participated together with Gunnar Bovim, rector of NTNU.

During the discussion, Norwegian author and China expert Torbjørn Færøvik said that recent moves towards greater authoritarianism in China in general and also at Chinese universities are a worrisome development and that Norway is now legitimising this.

But both Nybø and Bovim said that academic collaboration might enhance democratic processes, more so than abstaining from such cooperation would.

Before the delegation members departed for China, it was announced that the journalist from Aftenposten, Kristoffer Rønneberg, had been denied a visa to visit China.

Security service warnings

Two weeks before the delegation left Norway, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST), represented by spokesmen Per Hollum and Per Marius Frost-Nielsen, told Universitetsavisa that Norwegian researchers ought to be extremely careful when collaborating with scientists “from countries with an active security service”, naming Russia, Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and China.

PST warned of the danger that Chinese researchers abroad might provide “possible assistance” to the Chinese government, because “China last year introduced a law that commands their citizens to assist Chinese authorities during their stay abroad”.

Giving an example of the kind of research where Chinese researchers might pose risks, Frost-Nielsen mentioned material technology that can be used in producing atomic weapons and robotics.

The comment drew a forthright response from the Chinese embassy in Norway, which told Universitetsavisa: “We’re both surprised and confused by their irresponsible and baseless accusations.”