Concerns over ‘dramatic’ research council interventions

The Norwegian research community is reeling after Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe unexpectedly dismissed the entire board of the Research Council of Norway (RCN), accusing it of overspending, and simultaneously announced significant cuts to research funding.

In a press release on 12 May, the ministry announced the replacement of the 11-member board including its chair with a temporary five-member board and described the RCN as being in a “serious economic position”.

“In order to clean up here, there is a need for new and different competence on the board of RCN.”

Kristin Halvorsen, a former finance and education minister who is now director of the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research in Oslo (CICERO), has been appointed to chair the board.

The press release said it appeared that the RCN, which manages an annual budget of NOK11 billion (US$1.2 billion) on behalf of the government, was facing a deficit of NOK275 million (US$29 million) and that the planned funding from the RCN for 2022 and 2023 went far beyond the funding available owing to excessive funding in previous years.

“This means that the economic problems are going to increase significantly if we do not do anything now,” Borten Moe said in the press release. “Preliminary estimates from the RCN on the budget are that the deficit will be NOK1.9 billion at the end of 2023 and NOK2.9 billion at the end of 2024 if we do not intervene.”

Less money for research

On the same day he sacked the board, Borten Moe told Aftenposten newspaper there would be less money given to research, that grants already awarded would be delayed, and the number of funded research projects would be reduced.

RCN Chief Executive Mari Sundli Tveit met with the new board members on 16 May and presented a budget reduced by NOK842 million (US$88 million).

Eight proposals for cuts were presented which included a reduction of 20% in the number of grants to be given by the RCN this year, a postponement of funding for Norwegian centres of excellence (SFF) and a cancellation of funding for the popular FRIPRO (funding for independent research projects) programme for next year.

The measures have necessitated that RCN send out a note on 23 May explaining the new situation that might affect researchers who have had projects approved but who have not yet signed a contract.

Former board members defend themselves

The former board members defended themselves in a joint article published in Aftenposten in which they accused Borten Moe of “fabricating a crisis” and disputed the minister’s claim that the RCN has treated earlier government cuts (since 2017) amounting to NOK1.7 billion as “loans” from its own budgets.

“When it was announced that there would be no additional funding and that the [system of moving appropriations between budget items but on condition the money is repaid] was not was acceptable, the RCN board immediately took notice of this in the budget in October 2021.”

The members said while they accepted the minister’s decision to axe the board, they wondered about his objectives.

“If the goal is more secure economic governance, ongoing high quality research productivity and stability for our leading research milieus, it would have been an advantage to start a dialogue based on the proposals the RCN has raised,” they wrote.

“And it would have been rational to seek authority in parliament as a part of the revised governmental budget.

“The situation now is only contributing to perturbation and insecurity for those researchers that are going to create the knowledge foundation for the future Norway. And the fabricated crisis of the minister might stop research … for a long time – and completely without necessity.”

Academics’ concerns

The developments have been met with shock by academics and researchers, in part because the auditor general had already approved the RCN budget without any problem on 29 April.

Professor Margareth Hagen, rector of the University of Bergen, called on Twitter for “a quick sorting out” of the situation at the RCN.

“These measures will lead to great insecurity, affect basic research and weaken our competitive position in securing funding through the EU research programmes,” she said.

Curt Rice, president of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, also via Twitter, said it was hard to understand the situation as “anything but a complete disaster for the people of Norway”.

The need for long-term planning

Professors May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), who shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2014 with John O’Keefe of University College London, told the Norwegian broadcaster (NRK) on its programme Dagsrevyen that the actions were “an enormous surprise for us”.

“The kind of science we are doing is dependent on long-term planning and the ability to be able to plan,” Moser said.

“This is dramatic. This means that many of us will not have a salary for the next year and may be having to quit and, due to the insecurity, must go abroad. We will then lose good scientists.”

Moser said owing to the need for long-term planning at the council, it could not operate on one-year cycles.

“And often, delays in the starting up of projects have led to the RCN moving funds between accounts and [financial] years and there has been acceptance for this as it is solving a problem that in reality has not been solved,” Moser said.

Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, president of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, said it was important that the conflict be resolved as soon as possible by the government to avoid any disruption to research.

“A discontinuity in the funding of basic research can lead to great damages later. The list of budget cuts that is presented might lead to long-lasting and negative consequences for Norwegian research … And if it is so that budget cuts are needed, these must be distributed over several years so that acute reductions do not occur.

“Norway has reached a high international profile as a research nation and this profile is built up over decades but is now at risk of being torn down within days and weeks.”

Professor Nils Christian Stenseth, previous director of the Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis at the University of Oslo, and a former president and vice-president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, told University World News that basic curiosity-driven research was “essential” for any country.

Preserving research groups

“We have to remember that it takes a long time (many years) to build up strong research groups. However, it is easy to destroy them.

“A budget cut for one year might have the dramatic effect that talented scientists leave the group or even science; hence, strong groups might have to be built up from scratch – which will take years.

“He [Borten Moe] has given a signal that he will prioritise down the FRIPRO funding for basic research. And that he will scrap the centres of excellence funding. If he is destroying this opportunity at the universities, it will be difficult to build it up again,” Stenseth said.

“These measures will hit the universities that are doing basic research the hardest … I do not know how the Centre Party [Borten Moe is in the top leadership of the party] is looking at basic research, but how the Labour Party in government can join his moves, is difficult to understand,” Stenseth said.

The role of politics

On whether politics was a motivator, Aftenposten political commentator Andreas Slettholm said he thought the minister genuinely believed the RCN needed change to its economic governance systems.

“However, the subject matter is complex, and the decision to sack the board seems like a complete overreaction. That may indicate that he stands to gain politically from a fight with the RCN. Normally, a minister in his position would blame the past government for a mess like this, but Borten Moe has instead chosen to fire at the council and its board.”

Aksel Kjær Vidnes, chief editor of an Oslo-based online newspaper established by the RCN, described Borten Moe’s actions as “unnecessarily hard hitting” and said he believed the ministry had given an “unsatisfactory explanation” for the firing of the board.

“The research council has warned against precisely this economic situation through several budget cuts, while being instructed by the previous government to keep the same level of expenses. It was bound to lead to this economic situation.

“I think the government should give the Norwegian research community the courtesy of answering all their questions about this situation and gather support for their actions,” he told University World News.