A Donald Trump of sorts lands in the research community
Sure, there’s an (Atlantic) ocean between the man who made a career of firing people and the minister who recently fired the entire board of the Research Council of Norway. But Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe has proven to be both a trigger-happy and hard-hitting minister.
When the current centre-left minority government was formed by Jonas Gahr Støre from the Labour Party, Ola Borten Moe from the Centre Party was expected to be named minister of defence, not minister of research. There are probably people today who wish the announcement had been a mistake.
A powerful symbolic action
It’s difficult to imagine a more powerful symbolic action than firing a board without being able to fully explain why.
Of course, this is also hardball politics, but the symbolism is clear. Dumbfounded university rectors and researchers have been sent a clear message: They have no influence over the minister, which is unusual. No one can expect the minister of research and higher education to be the defender of research in the government any more.
The relationship between the research sector and the ministers who have passed through the Ministry of Education and Research usually plays out like this: a new minister starts, the sector lays out clear expectations, the minister assures them that research is important to the government and then the sector argues at every budget presentation about whether there is enough growth in the research allocation or not.
At some point the minister is replaced and a new one arrives who assures the sector that research is important to the government.
But regardless of the level of conflict, there is an unspoken contract in place: the minister fights in the government for his budget and thus for the sector.
Along came Ola Borten Moe, who said something else: you have to get your act together, and you’re being wasteful. He announced early on that the spending spree was over, to the extent that there was ever a spree to talk about.
He has also announced, and now appears to be implementing, cuts in planned construction projects in the sector.
He believes the projects are out of control and is tightening up spending on projects such as the new Viking Age Museum, which will house Norway’s perhaps most important cultural heritage objects, the crumbling Viking ships, and the new campus project of Norway’s largest university, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
No substantiation – yet
And then there is the research council situation. If we are to believe Borten Moe and the Ministry of Education and Research, the council’s board has been running the ship aground. There’s a long line of deficits to come in the years ahead. And apparently it’s the research council’s fault.
But the documentation and explanation are wanting. The minister has not quite managed to substantiate his story. Yet, I have to add. But the cast-aside board strongly disputes Borten Moe’s portrayal.
According to the Norwegian national newspaper Aftenposten, the Office of the Auditor General wrote as recently as 29 April this year that it was not “aware of circumstances that indicate that the enterprise has allocated appropriations in violation of administrative regulations in a way that would have significance for the state’s financial management”.
This doesn’t mean that there have been no wrongdoings, but if the Office of the Auditor General hasn’t found any problems, then a decision to shoot with live ammunition should be backed by solid justification. As the situation now stands, it seems as if the minister has chosen the heaviest possible artillery in a situation that could have had several gentler solutions.
So, how could Ola Borten Moe take these drastic steps? First of all, he had better be right, even if his justification so far leaves a lot to be desired. But I think part of the answer also lies in the fact that he simply can.
Aksel Kjær Vidnes is editor-in-chief of Forskning.no, Norway. A longer version of this article was first published on sciencenorway.no..