‘Sad but expected’: Asia-focused research unit to close

The Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) – a research institute based at the University of Copenhagen and specialising in the study of Asian politics, society, culture and economics – has announced that it is shutting down its activities as of the end of 2023 after 53 years of operating.

A statement on its website in August said: “Courage, cleverness and tenacity have not been enough. After years of spirited resistance, it is now time to face facts – without its core funding, NIAS cannot survive. With a heavy heart, we announce the final closure of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies on 31 December 2023.”

NIAS was established in 1968 with core funding from the Nordic Council of Ministers. In 2005 it was transferred to a consortium of the Copenhagen Business School, University of Copenhagen, and Lund University. Today, it is run by a staff of 11.

The NIAS website notes that at the beginning of 2021 core funding for NIAS was transferred from the Nordic Council of Ministers to NordForsk, the Nordic research council. “NIAS now faces a challenging situation as regards future funding from 2024 onwards,” it says.

The university-based institute serves all five Nordic countries, comprising Denmark (including Greenland and Faroe Islands), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland, with associated partners in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. NIAS is an affiliated member of the Nordic Centre at Fudan University in China.

There are three member institutions in Denmark, four in Finland, seven in Norway, two in Iceland, five in Sweden and one in Lithuania, and three associated member institutions in Estonia and Latvia.

In addition to universities, members include the Sweden Defence Research Institute, Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies, Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and the Peace Research Institute Oslo.

Missions and priorities

NIAS pursued two main missions: undertaking and disseminating research on Asia; and supporting the Nordic Asia research environment.

Research priorities have included climate and sustainability, digitalisation, gender equality and diversity, democracy and human rights, and Asia-Nordic Relations.

NIAS also collaborated with other Nordic research networks, including the Swedish South Asia Network and university networks for Asian studies in Stockholm, Bergen and Arhus.

The Nordic Centre India and the Nordic Centre at Fudan in Shanghai, the two leading Nordic consortiums in higher education and research in these two Asian giants, are described as “valuable collaborative forums for bringing together Nordic and Asian researchers”.

According to the NIAS website, the institute has “worked to make Nordic Asia scholarship internationally visible. In recent decades the main emphasis of NIAS has been on modern and contemporary Asia, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Our primary geographical focus is on East and Southeast Asia”.

The message announcing its closure said NIAS had served for over 55 years as “one of the leading research centres” on Asia in the Nordic region.

It said the reasons why it was founded back in the 1960s remain true today.

Asia is ‘poorly understood’

“Asia plays an increasingly important role in our lives yet is poorly understood. One reason is because, across the Nordic region, the field of Asian Studies has a marginal status and is fragmented across various disciplines and research environments,” the institute said in the statement.

“Over the decades, NIAS has acted as an interdisciplinary meeting point for these fragmented gems. This purpose has been reflected in our aims, achievements and reputation but also in the challenges we have faced.

“With the closure of NIAS, all this activity will cease or must find another home. In no way does this mean the end of high-quality Nordic research on Asia but inevitably such a heavy blow to scholarly collaboration and educational attainment will be felt.”

The statement notes that in a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, many of them centred on Asia, “the loss of information channels sensitive to Nordic interests is highly regrettable”.

NIAS Assistant Director Philip Wenzel Kyhl told University World News: “I can’t say much more about the future of our core activities other than that we are trying to salvage the continued accessibility to the backlist of NIAS Press, access to Asian language databases for Nordic and Baltic Asian studies scholars and [will] try to find new owners for our blogs and podcast, some of the core deliveries of the project in the last many years. We are working on these things daily and more information will follow soon.”

Ever-decreasing support

Associate Professor Zoran Lee Pecic, based in the department of interdisciplinary studies of culture at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, said the closure was “sad but expected news”.

“For decades, NIAS has been a highly valuable resource centre for the studies of Asia in the Nordics, serving as a regional hub and connecting numerous research environments across the Nordic region.

“The closure of NIAS is reflective of the ever-decreasing funding and support for the studies of humanities and social sciences in Denmark, particularly in relation to the scholarly focus on non-European and non-Nordic areas,” said Pecic.

“The consequences of this, I believe, will be particularly felt in the upcoming years, as the demand for scholarship and expertise on popular culture, gender, sustainability, digitalisation and climate change in Asia increases.”

Professor Erik Renström, vice-chancellor of Lund University, told University World News that his university “deeply regrets this decision, which we believe comes at a very unfortunate time”.

“The geopolitical tensions we are experiencing today should be met through continued cooperation, of course in a responsible and thoughtful way. At Lund University, we will do our best to achieve this.”