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Longer-term research planning is welcome step for Norway’s academics

Norway’s eagerly awaited white paper on research, finally issued last month, was well received by scientists for its long-term planning.

Put together by Norway’s research ministry and the Forskningsrådet, the country’s research council, it sets out priorities for funding and scientific investigation over the next 10 years. This is a significant move; such priorities used to be set annually. The strategy does, though, include an option for revision every four years to allow adaptation to new challenges.

Academics hope the white paper will give Norway’s science funding the stability it has lacked for so long. Under the previous system, with funding for institutions set annually, universities spent precious time and resources developing annual funding proposals that did not succeed if research priorities had changed.

Research institutes in particular are set to benefit from this new-found planning security. Before, laboratories and institutes had to fight for funding every year, with one or two winners according to that year’s research priorities, and many losers, says Petter Aaslestad, the head of the Forskerforbundet, Norway’s researcher union. “There is already a more or less secret list of priorities,” he says. “So, if this list could be made public, long-term planning would be easier for the institutions.”

The goal behind the strategy, according to the government, is to improve Norway’s scientific performance. The country is among the biggest research spenders in the world, as a proportion of GDP, but lags behind other Scandinavian countries in terms of innovation.

Considering this innovation gap, however, it is curious that the white paper does not contain much information on research budgets or Norway’s progress to achieving the EU goal of spending 3 per cent of GDP on research. Public spending, although comparatively high, is hovering around 0.9 per cent of GDP and industry spending has not increased much over the past decade. The document does not specify how or when the EU target is to be achieved.

The long-term strategy itself also seems somewhat fragmented, as each government ministry has presented its own priorities, rather than coming up with an overall theme. The Forskerforbundet has warned that some of the white paper’s topics, such as marine life and fisheries, will need cross-disciplinary approaches.

But the overall mood is positive. Norway will hold a general election in September, and the white paper has stimulated politicians to work on party programmes for science. “We have seen an increasing political interest in research, so there is a reason to be optimistic,” says Aaslestad.