NOU 2022: 2

Academic freedom of expression — A good culture of free speech must be built from the bottom up, every single day

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2 Mandate, composition, form of work

2.1 Mandate and appointment

The Ministry of Education and Research’s letter of appointment for the expert group dated 20 July 2021:

Appointment of members to an expert group on academic freedom of expression
The Ministry of Education and Research has today appointed an expert group to investigate issues relating to academic freedom of expression. Thank you for agreeing to take part in this work.
The expert group’s proposals will provide the basis for the Ministry’s work on a new long-term plan for research and higher education (2023–2032), which will be presented to the Storting (Norwegian parliament) in autumn 2022. The expert group’s proposal will also form the basis for the work on a new draft Act relating to universities and university colleges, which the Ministry aims to present in spring 2023.
The expert group has the following composition:
  • Anine Kierulf (chair), Associate Professor, University of Oslo and special adviser to the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution

  • Gunnar Bovim, Advisor, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

  • Saira Basit, Vice Dean, Norwegian Defence University College

  • Sofie Høgestøl, Associate Professor, University of Oslo

  • Magnus Dybdahl, Academic and Research Policy Officer, the National Union of Students in Norway (NSO)

  • Vidar Helgesen, Executive Director, the Nobel Foundation, Stockholm

Background

Academic freedom entails, among other things, that the individual employee must be free to themselves choose the topic and method for their research, and that they have an independent academic responsibility for the organisation and content of their teaching. Institutions must use their academic freedom to create conditions that facilitate these kinds of choices. There are a number of developments in society that give cause for concern. The public debate is becoming increasingly polarised. Academic freedom, independence, and quality assurance are becoming increasingly important to maintain a high level of trust in research-based knowledge in society. The individual researcher’s academic freedom is a fundamental premise for the independence and legitimacy of research. It is a problem if employees are so affected by threats, intimidation, etc. that they do not want or dare to do research on or teach certain issues or topics. In the worst case, this may also affect the choice of method or content of the learning and hamper free research. Universities and university colleges must promote and safeguard academic freedom (cf. section 1-5 (1) of the Norwegian Universities and University Colleges Act). This means that the institutions have a statutory responsibility to stand behind and support employees if they experience threats, harassment, intimidation, etc. Universities and university colleges also have responsibilities towards their employees by virtue of their capacity as an employer (cf. the Working Environment Act).
In the legislative bill Proposition no. 111 to the Storting (2020–2021), section 2.2.1, the Ministry adopted the Universities and University Colleges Act Commission’s proposal to continue the content of the current section 1-5 on academic freedom and responsibility (see Official Norwegian Report (NOU) 2020:3, chapter 15). At the same time, the Ministry noted that the policy and systems needed upgrading to meet the new era, with new media, new technologies and new challenges. The Ministry therefore announced that, in connection with the work on a new long-term plan for research and higher education (2023–2032), the Ministry would, among other things, appoint an expert group that will be tasked with investigating certain aspects of academic freedom and responsibilities.

Mandate

The expert group shall assess whether, and if so how, the Universities and University Colleges Act should be amended to clarify the employees’ academic freedom of expression, and the institutions’ responsibility for and opportunities to safeguard and support this. The expert group should also consider whether there is a need for further regulation of the relationship between freedom of expression, academic freedom and the responsibilities of employees and employers pursuant to, for example, the Working Environment Act.
In addition, the expert group must also describe possible threats to academic freedom, partly in light of international developments. The expert group shall provide a basis for discussing the prerequisites for the exercise of academic freedom in academia and academia’s contribution to the public debate. The expert group should therefore have an open approach, obtain views from relevant stakeholders, and encourage debate. The expert group should also draw on synergies released by comparing existing sources of knowledge, which the Ministry of Education and Research will obtain as part of its work on the long-term plan for research and higher education. The expert group must present its proposals by 1 March 2022.

2.2 Working method and input

2.2.1 The Commission’s work

The Commission held its first meeting on 3 September 2021, and has met a total of nine times. Most of the meetings were held in person in Oslo, but some were held via videoconference due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last meeting was held via videoconference on 7 March 2022.

The Commission’s working method has been adapted to the very short time limit it has been given. The reason for the short time limit is that the Commission’s report is to form the basis for two processes in the Ministry of Education and Research: a proposal for a new Universities and University Colleges Act is scheduled to be presented in 2023, and a new long-term plan for higher education and research is to be presented along with the national budget in autumn 2022.

The Commission’s chair and members have participated in a number of different debates and discussions with stakeholders by special invitation, including the Stockmanndagene conference in Trondheim on 30 September 2021 and Universities Norway’s conference on 7 December 2021.

The Commission, represented by the chair and secretariat, has had meetings with the Freedom of Expression Commission (chair and secretariat) and with several resource persons in the Ministry of Education and Research and underlying agencies.

2.2.2 Input

In the letter of appointment, the Commission has been asked to have an open approach, obtain views from relevant stakeholders, and encourage debate. Due to the short time limit, we have not been able to arrange any major events ourselves, but we have gathered consultative input from targeted organisations and institutions, from individuals, and from contacts abroad. In the absence of open meetings, the Commission has called for input from all interested parties.

Input by open invitation

The Commission issued an open call for consultative statements on the government’s website regjeringen.no. The invitation was reiterated in a post by the group’s leader in the online newspaper for higher education and research Khrono.1 By February 2022, the Commission had received around 50 consultative statements. The Commission is not an investigative committee and has not undertaken concrete assessments of the individual consultative statements. However, we have used the information provided in many of them as the starting point for our assessments.

Written consultative statements from organisations invited to comment

The Commission has asked various organisations for their views and comments on the subject of the inquiry, including the Norwegian Association of Researchers (FF), the Young Academy of Norway (AYF), the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees (FEK) and the Language Council of Norway.

Furthermore, a selection of universities and university colleges have been asked to comment and provide input: University of Oslo, University of Bergen, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, University of Stavanger, Kristiania University College, and the Norwegian Police University College. The research institutes Cicero and Sintef were also asked to comment and provide input.

In addition, Oslo School of Architecture and Design, the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo National Academy of the Arts, the University of Bergen, the University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and the Inland Norway University of Applied Sciences (the Norwegian Film School) were asked to comment and provide input on academic freedom of expression within the arts in particular.

The Commission has also obtained information on academic freedom of expression in a number of countries from the education and research councils at the Norwegian embassies in Brussels, Paris, Washington and New Delhi. In addition to raising questions about the regulation of academic freedom of expression and the responsibility of institutions to support and protect it, the Commission also asked about ongoing debates, possible threats and challenges to academic freedom, the prerequisites for exercising academic freedom, how academia can contribute to public debate, and the relationship between freedom of expression, academic freedom of expression and academic freedom.

Invited speakers

The Commission invited certain individuals from Norway and abroad to provide an opening presentation at meetings. The following people were invited (with country of residence in brackets for people who do not reside in Norway):

  • Professor Tor Grande, Pro-Rector, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

  • Professor Elisabeth Staksrud, University of Oslo, then Chair of the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH)

  • Professor Guro Lind, Oslo University Hospital, Chair of the Norwegian Association of Researchers

  • Professor Kenneth Ruud, formerly Pro-Rector of the University of Tromsø – the Arctic University of Norway, now Director General of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment

  • Professor emeritus Jan Fridtjof Bernt, University of Bergen

  • Vidar Strømme, lawyer, Director General of the Norwegian National Human Rights Institution

  • Professor Morten Holmboe, Norwegian Police University College

  • Professor Emeritus Heine Andersen, University of Copenhagen (Denmark)

  • Professor Keith E. Whittington, Princeton University (USA)

  • Professor Emeritus Hank Reichman, California State University (USA)

  • Professor Emerita Joan W. Scott, Institute for Advanced Study (USA)

  • Dr Pam Fredman, formerly Rector of the University of Gothenburg, now President of the International Association of Universities (Sweden)

  • Associate Professor Bente Kalsnes, Kristiania University College

  • Norunn Sæther Myklebust, CEO of the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research

  • Researcher Mari Skuggedal Myksvoll, Norwegian Institute of Marine Research and a member of the Young Academy of Norway

  • Elisabeth Björk, Vice President of AstraZeneca AB (Sweden)

  • Researcher I Kjersti Thorbjørnsrud, Institute for Social Research

  • Tove Lie, Chief Editor of the online newspaper for higher education and research Khrono

  • Eva Grinde, commentator in the newspaper Dagens Næringsliv

  • Major General Henning-A. Frantzen, then Rector of the Norwegian Defence University College

  • Hector Ulloa, President of the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund

  • Matteo Vespa, member of the board of the European Students’ Union and representative on the Bologna Process Working Group on Fundamental Values and the Scholars at Risk European Coordinating Committee (Italy)

  • Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, Rector of the Karolinska Institute (Sweden)

  • The Norwegian Police Security Service

  • Lieutenant Colonel and Professor Tormod Heier, Norwegian Defence University College

  • Researcher II Ingvild Reymert, Institute for Social Research and the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education

  • Irene Sandli, Director of Human Resources, University of Oslo

2.2.3 Knowledge base

Reports from OsloMet

In September 2021, the Centre for the Study of Professions at OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, was commissioned by the Ministry of Education and Research to conduct an analysis of academic freedom and confidence in research-based knowledge in Norway. The assignment consisted of two main components: a knowledge-based analysis of the conditions necessary for and potential threats to academic freedom of expression; and an analysis of the most important prerequisites for ensuring high confidence in research-based knowledge in Norway and the factors and developments that can undermine confidence in this knowledge.

The first sub-report, Et ytringsklima under press? Akademisk frihet og ytringsfrihet i en brytningstid [Is freedom of expression at risk? Academic freedom and freedom of expression in a period of upheaval],2 was published in December 2021 and was used as part of the knowledge base for the Commission’s work.

This sub-report discusses issues related to academic freedom in Norway in a broad international context, particularly in comparison with our Nordic neighbours. It discusses, among other things, possible threats to academic freedom in Norway in light of changes in the governance structure for universities and university colleges, traditions in the relationship between academia and the general public, and international developments in new platforms of communication. The report identifies areas where academic freedom is or may come under pressure.

The report looks at the infrastructure for academic freedom and how the three key dimensions of latitude (defined by external constraints), integrity, and ability (defined by internal limitations) relate to the relationship between the individual researcher, the institutions and society. Below are some of the main findings of this report.

Researchers are an important source of information for the Norwegian media and also conduct popular scientific dissemination through other channels. In general, researchers seem to have become better disseminators in recent years. Norwegian researchers’ latitude to express their ideas and opinions does not currently appear to be directly limited by an aggressive and increasingly polarised climate of expression in the public sphere to any significant degree.

Nevertheless, there is much to suggest that, in reality, fear of the tabloidisation of the media and an unpleasant climate of debate, especially on social media, is limiting researchers’ dissemination activities. Researchers are less eager to communicate controversial findings in the media, as opposed to in scholarly publications. Several researchers in fields such as climate change, gender studies, and immigration, integration and multiculturalism report that they try to avoid communicating publicly on incendiary topics in order to avoid unpleasant reactions. It is difficult to measure the extent of subtle forms of self-censorship, withdrawal and chilling effects. It is also difficult to gauge whether researchers adapt their statements to the climate of opinion within their own academic environment, since such adaptation is often unconscious and the result of internalised norms, as opposed to direct, external pressure to conform. The report concludes that clearer support from managers and a stronger collegial community would help make more researchers feel more confident in their dissemination responsibilities.

The conditions in Norway may well be better suited to avoiding an unchecked polarisation between populist forces and «academic elites» than they are in the USA and many countries in Europe. Norway has relatively weak academic elites, who are generally well integrated into society. Countercultures, new political movements and traditionally underprivileged social classes have been accepted into academia and fostered their own «organic intellectuals» – an academic role model that has been strongly embraced in Norway. By contrast, Norway has a relatively consensual political culture, which – combined with small communities, close networks between different institutional spheres, and a strong concentration of elites in the capital – can nurture suspicions, well-founded or otherwise, that researchers, bureaucrats and other «experts» are united in an ideological clique that serves to conform research.

It is difficult to gain a reliable, research-based overview of the prevalence of identity politics and cancel culture in academic institutions. Little research has been done on the topic. Most of the accusations of this in Norway have come from the academic community itself. It would appear that Norwegian universities and university colleges have consistently shown relatively strong resistance to the polarising dynamics of identity politics within the institutions.

The report points out that the combined management pressure on research and higher education from the public authorities, research councils, management of the institutions and other players linked to research that control strategic resources can result in considerable pressure to conform. Academic staff may feel that their freedom of expression is restricted when they perceive that they must constantly think carefully about how their statements might affect collaborative relationships and access to strategic research resources. At the same time, the current trend for educational and research institutions to define themselves using semi-political slogans and «core values» may limit researchers’ freedom to assess or challenge these values. This kind of conformity can reflect conscious opportunism or more subconscious processes. Either way, it can result in a politicisation that undermines the public’s confidence in research.

The report goes on to discuss whether these kinds of conformity-inducing mechanisms can impair researchers’ ability to make use of their freedom of expression. In the conclusion, the following questions are raised: (1) Have the ongoing changes within the academic institutions, in their surroundings in the outside world and in the patterns of interaction between research and society weakened the «culture of independence» in academia in favour of a mounting «culture of conformity»? (2) Are young people increasingly being socialised into a culture of conformity before becoming students and possibly embarking on an academic career? (3) Can the sum total of a number of changes in research, organised research training, recruitment, publication patterns, organisational forms and research funding lay the groundwork for a socialisation (and selection) of young researchers where career orientation, strategic adaptation and conformity are increasingly being encouraged and rewarded, while independence and uncompromising intellectual honesty are on the wane? The report states that it does not have a robust enough knowledge base to provide definitive answers, but argues that the questions merit attention in the form of both further research and debate.

The second sub-report, Integrasjon og integritet: Tillit til forskning i et kunnskapssamfunn [Integration and integrity: Confidence in research in a knowledge society],3 was only published in March 2022 and has therefore not been part of the Commission’s knowledge base for this report.

The Institute for Social Research’s monitoring project in collaboration with the Fritt Ord Foundation on the status of freedom of expression in Norway

In 2021, the Institute for Social Research (ISF) published a report with the support of the Fritt Ord Foundation: Forskere og offentligheten – om ytringsfrihet i akademia [Researchers and the public – on freedom of speech in academia].4 The report looks at how,, when compared with the population in general, researchers assess their right to express their views publicly, how they perceive the opinion climate and arena of expression in general, their specific experience with public participation and dissemination of research results in the media, and whether they have experienced unpleasant comments or threats as a result of their media participation. The Institute for Social Research (ISF) looked in particular at experiences and dissemination practices among researchers in climate research, gender and equality research, and research related to immigration and integration.

The Institute for Social Research summarises the main findings as follows:

Both researchers and the general public believe that researchers ought to be able to express themselves freely about academic issues. The population is more critical of researchers voicing their opinions on political issues. Almost half of the researchers hold that participation in public debate can improve the quality of their research, at the same time as many express caution. Most of the researchers that took part in the study have published their findings in academic forums during the past year, and almost half have communicated research findings to the general public via news media and social media. Researchers are generally less likely to communicate controversial findings in the media than in specialised academic forums. They are least willing to communicate findings that may be perceived as offensive in news media and on social media. Complexity and «tabloidisation» are cited as the main reasons why researchers refrain from communicating their research to the public. Controversial findings and fear of unpleasant reactions are particularly significant in some disciplines and research fields. Researchers in the fields of immigration, gender and climate change are more likely to limit themselves than researchers in other fields. Researchers in the fields of immigration, gender and climate change experience unpleasant comments and threats more frequently than researchers in other fields. Most of the unpleasant comments are from other researchers and colleagues. Unpleasant comments can result in increased engagement, but can also trigger anger, insecurity and withdrawal.

The Institute for Social Research’s report Ytringsfrihet i akademia [Freedom of expression in academia]5 by Vidar Strømme is also part of the Fritt Ord Foundation’s monitoring project on the status of freedom of expression (ISF report 2020:14). The report aims to further clarify the legal aspects of academic freedom of expression. It also identifies trends, uncertainties and possible weaknesses in some of the rules that are currently practised. Freedom of expression is intended to contribute to the pursuit of truth, the freedom of the individual and democracy, and is under constant pressure. Strømme shows that freedom of expression in academia is strong – both as a principle and legally.

Freedom of expression in a new public sphere. The boundaries of debate and the arena for knowledge

A new book with the title Ytringsfrihet i en ny offentlighet. Grensene for debatt og rommet for kunnskap [Freedom of expression in a new public sphere. The boundaries of debate and the arena for knowledge]6 by Marte Mangset, Arnfinn H. Midtbøen and Kjersti Thorbjørnsrud (eds.) deals with freedom of expression in academia. The authors consider freedom of expression and freedom of information in context and regard academia as a specific field for knowledge production. They also investigate researchers’ perceptions of the conditions for the seeking of truth, dissemination of knowledge and diversity of perspectives. Access to relevant knowledge, breadth of knowledge types and counter-expertise are closely related to researchers’ freedom of expression. How spacious and diverse this arena and freedom of expression in academia are perceived to be from the inside depends on a number of norms and mechanisms other than the law alone. The authors investigate whether the institutional framework for knowledge production and dissemination enables researchers to fulfil their civic mission of supplying knowledge to the public debate, and whether a homogeneous political orientation among scholars or whether government-directed research policy can pose challenges for the diversity of knowledge in the Norwegian public sphere. Internally within academia, different academic approaches may also limit the diversity of perspectives in knowledge production and dissemination, if certain topics or perspectives are avoided because researchers do not want the burden of working on them or funding priorities prevent them from being pursued. The book maps the barriers to dissemination from the researchers’ point of view, looks at the discussions about which researcher roles are legitimate, and where researchers draw the line between research and politics.

Studies on dissemination activities and the priority afforded to dissemination at universities and university colleges

There are relatively few studies on dissemination activities at universities and university colleges. In her PhD thesis «Controlling the Future of Academe: Academic and Managerial Logics in Professorial Recruitment», Ingvild Reymert, a researcher at the Institute for Social Research (ISF) and the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU), has analysed academic hiring processes and the use of bibliometric indicators, and which factors are afforded importance in connection with recruitment to academic positions. Reymert did not have a main focus on dissemination in this work, but in her doctoral material she found that less importance is attached to dissemination activities, with greater importance attached in interviews than in expert assessments. There are major differences between different disciplines; everyone does some dissemination work, although they never have much time for this; and there are minor differences in the level of dissemination activities between researchers born in Norway and foreign researchers. By contrast, the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education’s Time Use Survey7 indicates that foreign researchers spend more time on dissemination than Norwegian researchers.

Footnotes

1.

Article posted in the online newspaper for higher education and research Khrono.no on 5 October 2021 https://khrono.no/kierulf-vil-du-hjelpe-oss/617576

2.

The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?], published on the Norwegian government’s website Regjeringen.no on 21 December 2021: https://www.regjeringen.no/no/dokumenter/et-ytringsklima-under-press/id2893147/

3.

The report Integrasjon og integritet – Tillit til forskning i et kunnskapssamfunn [Integration and integrity: Confidence in research in a knowledge society], published on the Norwegian government’s website Regjeringen.no on 8 March 2022. https://www.regjeringen.no/no/aktuelt/ny-rapport-om-tillit-til-forskningsbasert-kunnskap/id2903463/

4.

Mangset, M., Midtbøen, A.H. Thorbjørnrud, K., Wollebæk, D., Fladmoe, A: (2021). Forskerne og offentligheten – om ytringsfrihet i akademia [Researchers and the public sphere – on freedom of expression in academia]. Institute for Social Research (ISF) https://hdl.handle.net/11250/2759833

5.

Strømme, Vidar (2020). Ytringsfrihet i akademia [Freedom of expression in academia]. Institute for Social Research (ISF) Report 2020:14 https://hdl.handle.net/11250/2719456

6.

Mangset, M., Midtbøen, A.H. & Thorbjørnsrud, K. (eds.) (2022). Ytringsfrihet i en ny offentlighet. Grensene for debatt og rommet for kunnskap [Freedom of expression in a new public sphere. The boundaries of debate and the arena for knowledge]. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget. https://doi.org/10.18261/9788215051017-2022

7.

Time Use Survey 2021 Lengre arbeidsuker, mindre tid til forskning og utviklingsarbeid [Longer working weeks, less time for research and development work] Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) https://www.nifu.no/news/lengre-arbeidsuker-mindre-tid-til-fou/

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