Science in Norway: Why I am in Bergen

Posted on January 21, 2013 by

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Author: Alden Denny

Bergen is a rainy city. I say this after living in Seattle, a city that has quite the rainy reputation in the states, but Bergen wins hands down. I arrived in early November and it rained for the following month without remorse. Between the weather and Norwegian prices that are double those in the US, moving to Norway is not for the faint of heart.

I came to Norway to learn and to work – and coincidentally to make a lot more money. As a master’s student at the University of Washington I had the opportunity to work with some of the best scientist in my field, and access to all the latest marine technology, from research vehicles to processing techniques. One of the tools I learned was to image plumes of methane rising from the seafloor, a relatively unknown mechanism to transport methane to the atmosphere (link). I had just finished up my master’s degree at the University of Washington and I needed a change of pace. I was considering leaving academia for the private sector, and told my adviser about it. She nodded and agreed that it was an idea (in her opinion not my best) and about a week later introduced me to a Norwegian researcher who wanted to do a project at his center that was almost exactly what I had been doing for the last six months imaging methane plumes. Whether that was a happy coincidence or something arranged I still do not know, but I took the opportunity and came to Norway. It felt a bit strange to come on as a contract research scientist with only a master’s degree, but the education I received in the US was easily up to the task.

The US is a powerhouse in science, but I have found that position to be troubled. In my field of marine geology I saw a complete lack of interest from the National Science Foundation (NSF) or even the hallowed Sloan Foundation to fund exploration. The impression behind these funding priorities is the idea that we had already discovered everything worth discovering, and now it’s time to focus on ‘Big Data’ projects (such as EarthCube) and multidisciplinary study. I say this as a graduate student who worked on three data compilation projects for various US funding agencies; all the fieldwork I did was unfunded and done on the sly. Whenever I spoke with my program managers about their priorities for science in the US they always extolled the type of work I was doing, and ignored or outright shot down any form of funding for explorative study. While I found big data projects justifiable for their own merit, they explicitly do not further our knowledge of the world. With the ocean still largely unexplored and new discoveries appearing on a monthly basis (for example this squid and this geyser), I believe this view is misguided. These projects are simpler to fund and require no risk for the funding agency. In an era of tight budgets and an almost sadistic focus on small projects and small ideas these are the type of projects that flourish.

What I did not expect in Norway was the contrast to the US funding situation. Norway is a country flush with money from oil extraction, and rather scant on people to spend it on. This money is very new – the first North Sea oil exploration began in the late ‘70s and was only economically viable in the early ‘80s (link). Norway is now 3rd in the world in per capita GDP and has the highest standard of living of any country. This wealth has been managed in a rather socialist style, with large outlays for universal healthcare and other exceptional worker benefits (link).

The funding agencies in Norway are interested in starting up scientific fields of study that were financially out of reach for them until recently. As a US-trained scientist, this environment feels raw and exciting. I don’t see the constant squabble over an ever shrinking science budget that only funds guaranteed return projects. I see a group that is relatively inexperienced as an institution, but ready to work on big ideas based on discoveries in other countries. To be sure, this environment poses its own challenges, and learning how to work with Norwegians is a slow and, at times, painful process. From my experience, Norwegians like to hold a first meeting where nothing seems to get done. They’ll talk about the issues and everyone nods and agrees that these are issues, and then the meeting is adjourned. As a veteran of many American meetings filled with urgency and stress and a mandate to get something done this model was bewildering. I’ve learned to just accept the fact that it takes two meetings about the need for another meeting before anything substantial gets done, and that’s just how Norwegians like it.

Working here has opened my eyes to how influential culture is to the scientific institution nested within it. In the US we are achieving great things, but we are constantly in fear of reduced or, at the very best, stagnant funding while the cost of science precipitously increases. The science is still here in Norway, but the fear is not. Funding can be hard to get, but it is there and the money has fewer strings attached. Everyone here is just…. relaxed. I would love to do science in the US, and I hope to do so again, but as it stands I am deeply worried about the lack of funding options back home. If we continue to tighten the strings, we will be choking out our own creativity that has brought us some of the greatest discoveries of our time and a possible understanding of the origins of life.

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