Next week some DLN members will gather at the Research Council of Norway’s premises to reflect on DLN’s achievements and to discuss the way forward after 2021. DLN has been an ambitious project. Its mandate is to have a transformative and long-lasting effect on biotechnological research and innovation to create economic, social, and environmental value for Norway.
The manner of research funding that DLN represents is new for all involved actors. It requires courage to try out new things, as well as humility to learn and adapt processes on the way. Much has been achieved in the last three years, such as increased collaboration in the R&D community across Norway, the emergence of a new community of young scholars, and high-quality meeting points. Yet, the upcoming self-assessment is an outstanding opportunity to discuss the heart of the matter. In particular, participants should address the problem of evaluations amid of a growing time pressure that stand in the way of doing things differently.
Change critically depends on the ‘maneuvering room’ that resources, institutions, and infrastructures allow for. Most DLN projects and their partners are part of universities that again are part of a bigger higher education and research politics landscape. In recent decades, universities underwent several structural reforms, led by demands for more efficiency. Metrics became crucial tools of evaluations; for example, the number of students graduating, the amount of external funding generated, and publications. Scientific employees at Norwegian universities were good in responding to these requirements. They significantly raised their output, probably based on unpaid overtime work. This situation constrains not only scientists’ capacity to work for “a transformation of Norwegian biotechnology” but often also their capacity to do the research they originally wanted to do.
As elsewhere, PIs in DLN projects engage continuously in writing proposals, managing new funding, participating in more meetings, traveling more, and performing assessments, evaluations, and supervision. For some, (lab) research, writing, or reading is done in the weekends, if at all. Scientists and administrators alike report that they feel like “headless chicken constantly trying to put out fires.” Early career researchers are often not better off. Previous research shows that young researchers within the life sciences are being trained to focus their activities on maximizing publications and citations to survive in the competitive academic race. However, the young generation of scholars are important carriers of DLN’s identity, competencies, and skills. Their academic survival should not only depend on their individual aspirations of success.
Therefore, a question that science policy makers, university leaders, and scientists need to ask—and the self-assessment is an opportunity to do so—is, how we can create good conditions for change. Change needs to address many levels and different spaces:What needs to change in the funding system, at universities, in evaluations, or in research practices, to achieve the goals of the DLN mandate?This question needs to be addressed because requiring change solely from research projects will not do the trick.[This text is an adapted summary of a recent publication in Journal of Responsible Innovation. For more information, references, and empirical detail, please see: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/23299460.2019.1605483]