Why has the Norwegian Minister of Research fired the board of the Norwegian Research Council? Because he can.
A shocked and worried Norwegian academia are still not closer to understanding last week’s events. Part of the answer is political: As long as voters don’t care, Ola Borten Moe from the Centre Party can set the Norwegian research world on fire.
A Donald Trump of sorts seems to have landed in the lap of Norway’s 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 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 Defense, not Minister of Research. There are probably people today who wish the decision was a mistake.
Defender of research?
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 anymore.
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Cut, cut, cut
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 NTNU.
Setting fire to the ivory tower with impunity
And then there is the Research Council-situation. If we are to believe Borten Moe and the Ministry of Education and Research, the Research 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 go to these drastic steps? First of all, he 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.
Researchers don’t vote for the Centre Party
In the Norwegian Media Survey 2022, researchers were asked what party they vote for. Just 2.4 percent of the researchers in the survey said they vote for the Centre Party, also known as “the farmer’s party”. The party’s appeal is fiercely rural. As a politician, Borten Moe won’t be punished for climbing up the ivory tower, as academia is often called, and making a commotion.
He could set the whole thing on fire and remain just as strong (or weak). There wouldn’t even have been much political fallout, for either Ola Borten Moe or the Centre Party, if he had gone to the step of eliminating the entire Research Council itself. Few people in Norway care much about the Research Council, to most an anonymous bureau administrating research grants, and among those who do, there are few Centre Party voters.
In that sense, it is difficult to imagine that former ministers, such as Tora Aasland or Kristin Halvorsen from the Socialist Left Party (SV), could have allowed themselves to behave in the same way.Twenty-three per cent of the researchers in the same media survey vote SV. Both ministers appeared to be ardent defenders of Norwegian research, albeit with a somewhat limited impact.
One of the hardest and most active ministers for research in recent years was the right-wing minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen from the Conservative Party. Under his rule, the university sector was completely transformed through a series of unpopular mergers and reforms.
With only 8 per cent of the country's researchers among its voters, the Conservatives do not run much of a risk by being tough. The core voters are moderately interested in protecting a sector that is clearly on the political left — save for when the sector is being criticized by woke youth who want to decolonize academia.
Bigger problem for Støre
The situation is, however, a slightly bigger nut to crack for the Labour Party. Researchers are more supportive of the Labour Party than most other parties. Twenty percent vote Labour, so for the prime minister Jonas Gahr Støre, his minister's conduct could become more of a problem.
This may explain why Støre wasted no time after the presentation of the revised state budged before he announced that he'll be willing to discuss some of the cuts suggested by his Minister of Research. A rather strange reaction from a prime minister, it is after all his budget proposal. It may seem as if he either didn’t know what the Minister of Research had come up with or that he realized too late that he would be punished by the voters. Not least by the local Labour party group in Labour stronghold Trøndelag, home of the NTNU. They are not too happy either with a proposed delay in the building of research facilities for the prestigious Ocean Space Centre.
When Støre formed the current government, Ola Borten Moe was expected to become Minister of Defense, not Minister of Research. There are probably people today who wish that there had been a mix up in the announcement. Maybe even prime minister Støre himself. If you are going to shoot sparrows with cannons, it is, after all, better it happens on the Armed Forces' training grounds than in the Research Council.
Translated by Nancy Bazilchuk.
Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no.