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Upheaval in Norwegian science funding threatens grants

Upheaval in Norwegian Science Funding Threatens grants

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Norwegian researchers are facing dramatic budget cuts after the government abruptly took control of its research funding agency board and said it must curtail its spending. On 12 May, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research announced it had fired the entire board of the Norwegian Research Council and replaced it with a temporary one to deal with what the government describes as “a serious financial situation.”

The decision threatens the stability of research and higher education, leaders in Norwegian science say. The research council now faces a shortfall of as much as 2.9 billion kroner ($300 million) by the end of 2024—approximately one-third of its annual budget. And commentators question the government’s handling of the situation. “The situation now is a crisis that was not needed,” says Svein Stølen, rector of the University of Oslo.

The new board met on 16 May to discuss proposed funding cuts. Measures include a 20% reduction to grants this year, the cancellation of the council’s main basic research funding program next year, and the postponement of research infrastructure projects. The proposed cuts would also threaten awards from the European Union’s Horizon Europe program, as institutions rely on the council to top up Horizon grants to cover higher costs in Norway. A year without money for basic research would damage Norwegian science and frighten talent away, Stølen says.

Recent discussions between university leaders and the research council have suggested a softer approach, with talk of delaying, rather than canceling, grants, and even asking researchers to volunteer for delays if possible, says Curt Rice, president of the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. The government does not plan to cancel existing grants outright, says Oddmund Hoel, a leader at the research ministry and a political appointee from the center-left government coalition.

The research council’s predicament is a “traumatic thing in an area where we have had very few scandals like this,” says Espen Solberg, a science policy researcher at the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education. A government report said the council broke strict rules on the management of public finances, which generally require money to be spent in the year it was allocated. The council had combined funding streams from different government ministries and spread the money across years and projects. It also built up a funding reserve intended for delayed projects.

The previous Norwegian government had imposed a series of funding cuts in order to force the agency to spend down its reserve. The council and wider research community assumed the government would replenish the funds when the time came to use them, Rice says. But after a national election in September 2021, a new government took over, which Rice says has only offered lukewarm support for science. It does not intend to replace those funds, and the council has now promised more grants than its coffers can sustain. The previous government has “sent a bill to us,” Hoel says. “The way they handled this has definitely made problems for us.”

The members of the fired board published a collective response to the situation in the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten, saying they stood by their financial management choices. “Research requires longevity,” they said; spreading funds across years was necessary to fund extended projects. They say the research minister could ask the parliament to allow the research council to continue its flexible approach in allocating money. This special permission “may be a possibility,” Hoel says.

Without that flexibility, the council will struggle to do its work effectively, Solberg says. “It boils down to this question: Are our ministries willing to give the research council confidence that they will operate their funding in a better way than their own detailed steering?”

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