Counselling on change in Norwegian research
The image of Norway that tends to be common currency outside of Scandinavia is that it is a wealthy, sleepy country, with a small population enjoying the benefits of a large amount of oil. But, as with most generalisations, this is not accurate. Despite its clear rejection of full membership of the European Union, Norway is a country currently looking at the EU as a benchmark and making efforts to reach the EU's levels, particularly in research and development (R&D). Those in Norway's research community are not slow to recognise that more needs to be done to bring the country's research up a notch or two. One of the most frequently quoted statistics is how the Norwegian percentage of GDP spent on research (1.66 per cent) falls below both the European Union's (1.79 per cent) and the OECD's (2.19 per cent) average. Norwegians are also aware that there may have been too much of an Anglo-Saxon focus in the past, with more time and effort dedicated to cooperative research with the USA and the UK, rather than fully exploiting the opportunities provided in the European Union. And finally, all are very clear that the role of the country's oil industry has had an important impact on the rest of the economy's research. The Norwegian economy is somewhat distorted by European standards, with a few key major industries, such as those in the oil sector, and then a myriad of much smaller companies (SMEs), with few breaking into the ground between the two. This has meant that many of the SMEs have not been integrated into a research environment. All of these comments and analyses originate from Norwegians, who have a refreshing willingness to identify and clarify the problems before embarking on solutions. One of the first recent actions that was taken to address the fragmentation of research effort was to merge the country's five research councils into a single entity in 1993. Previously the councils had been divided up by subject (fisheries, IT, agriculture, social sciences and environment), but these were all integrated into one research council designed to cover all subjects for all geographical areas of Norway, all under one roof. As well as providing a one stop shop for all information on Norwegian research, the Norwegian research council acts as an advisor to the Norwegian government on areas that need to be strengthened in Norwegian R&D. Even now, with a more integrated structure, the Norwegians are looking at means of refining the system. A public contract was tendered and awarded for a study to give recommendations on bettering the present set up, and was awarded to international consultancy, Technopolis. The research council concedes that new issues have arisen with the new structure, such as basic research and applied research competing for similar resources. The funding that the council gets also leads to difficulties, as it derives it from at least 17 different governmental sources, many of whom 'tag' the money to ensure that it is spent on a specific area. Again, the research council is looking to change this situation, so that funding can be allocated more on a basis of necessity. 'The research council is in a positive period of change,' says Paal Alme, director of public relations at the council. Drawing in more researchers is another area where Norway is finding difficulties. But the research council has formed a programme to increase the number of young people interested in science and research. It has established a 'Research week' event, showing the results of research in a tangible way and has been instrumental in involving schoolchildren in a greater understanding of the meaning of research. The Norwegian government has also made clear that broadband capacity should be installed in all schools and universities by the end of the year. The council is also planning to open a new website (www.forskning.no) this year, which will act as forum for information exchange, as well as providing a platform for all the research related institutes all over Norway, which will be able to submit the latest information on their activities. 'The new website should also help personnel problems, like addressing the lack of women in areas like physics and maths,' says Alme. Using the Internet is a particularly useful way of reaching people in Norway, as not only is it a large country but it also has 2.4 million Internet users (out of population of about four million), 77 per cent of which are aged between 13 and 39 and at least one million Norwegians use the Internet each day. Clearly not so sleepy or self satisfied, Norway is a country that has realised that work needs to be done and has already set about changing its R&D structures for the better.