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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6 Challenges to academic freedom of expression

6.1 Introduction

By way of an introduction, the Commission would stress that there is a lot of good use of academic freedom of expression and many fine disseminators in academia. However, the focus of our report is that many academics and students do not, or only to a modest degree, engage in dissemination activities. This is not only because their knowledge is less in demand or not immediately relevant to society, but also because for a variety of reasons they cannot or choose not to prioritise dissemination. Everyone who conducts research and teaching should regard communicating knowledge and actively sharing their insights in broader public spheres as an obvious element of their civic responsibility – and also as one of their work duties. Dissemination is not a task academics can choose to opt out of; it is a responsibility throughout the entire sector.

A general challenge to academic freedom of expression is lack of time. Even academics who want to and can engage in dissemination activities often do less of it than they might have if they had more time. However, there are also a number of other factors that affect how academic freedom of expression works – and does not work:

In his report to the UN General Assembly in 2021, the UN Secretary-General wrote that the «war on science must be stopped» and that we must defend «a common, empirically backed consensus around facts, science and knowledge».1 The statement highlights the external threat to science and the search for truth characterised by resistance to and undermining of research and evidence-based dissemination. This is one of several challenges that complicate academic freedom of expression.

Figuratively speaking, the «war» metaphor resonates with some of the input the Commission has received. Dissemination and other encounters with the public can at times feel like a battlefield with surprisingly heated and hostile situations – it is a «jungle» out there beyond the ivory tower. A fair amount of the input we have received refers to various dilemmas and challenges related to academic freedom of expression. We have not been able to study all of them in depth, but in this chapter we will explore some of the issues they identify. We do not aim to estimate how extensive or representative the various challenges are.2 The purpose of this chapter is to provide a general overview of the «perceived threats» facing academic freedom of expression in Norway today. Although not all of these threats can be averted through the implementation of concrete measures, the overview here forms the basis for the measures proposed by the Commission, which are presented in chapter 7.

The presentation in this chapter is largely based on referred information. As mentioned in section 2.2.3, the Commission is not an investigative committee. We have neither a mandate nor the opportunity to assess specific individual cases. Instead, we have used the input we have received to reflect on some of the conflicting considerations in issues related to academic freedom of expression. In connection with some of the challenges, we also identify how different considerations can be weighed up against one another.

The challenges faced by academic staff and institutions when exercising academic freedom of expression can be structured in different ways. On a general level, challenges and threats against academic freedom of expression may come from above – from the authorities and clients who provide funding and make decisions, from below – from the local public spheres in which scholars operate, from within – internally in academia, from the management, colleagues and students, and from the outside – from the international and geopolitical landscapes that academia is a part of.

From above: In several countries, including many that we often like to compare ourselves with, we are seeing a trend towards tighter political control over the conditions for academic freedom and freedom of expression.3 These restrictions may be quite drastic, such as outright censorship or other sanctions against institutions or academic staff, or prohibition of politically undesirable methods. However, more subtle methods, such as intervention through political manifestos, expectations or government statements and funding priorities from clients, can also be effective ways to silence some voices in academia.

From below: Like academia, the edited media have a civic mission to seek the truth. They are a prerequisite for academic freedom of expression and a main channel for «translating the thoughts and ideas of experts into language that laypeople can understand». This necessitates good cooperation and mutual understanding between academics and journalists. The prerequisites for this cooperation are threatened by the increasing focus on the bottom line and growing time pressure in the edited media. The internet and unedited media have great democratising potential, and enable vastly expanded freedom of expression and information. However, in the absence of quality assurance and through their use of algorithms that play on human biases for commercial purposes, these public spheres also generate extensive misinformation and fake news, ranging from illegal threats to legal but massive and destructive campaigns and actions against academics.

From within: Academic freedom of expression can also be challenged within academia, due to tendencies towards ideological conformism, formation of uniform attitudes and pettiness, etc. It can be challenged by the management, by their opposing or sanctioning of lawful but controversial or «reputation-damaging» statements. It can be challenged by colleagues, by academic staff who engage in dissemination being opposed by means other than academic freedom of expression, being slandered or excluded from projects, etc., or simply being silenced into submission. And it can be challenged by students, through academic staff with «wrong» attitudes or teaching methods being opposed via organised campaigns rather than argumentation, and through fellow students with divergent views and attitudes refraining from expressing them. Surveys suggest that there is widespread concern among young people about expressing controversial views.4

From the outside: Academic freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy and social and economic growth. Consequently, tensions and conflict between nations may also have an impact in academic arenas. The flipside of open international research collaboration, which is crucial for academia, is vulnerability to foreign interference. The threats to academic freedom of expression are multitude: research espionage, information warfare and misinformation campaigns, pressure and sanctions, for example, in the form of researchers who express controversial ideas or are critical of regimes being denied a visa, and regulations that limit international scientific collaboration. There have been cases in some countries of foreign students trying to influence teaching and their fellow students at the behest of their home country’s authorities. China’s National Intelligence Law obliges all Chinese citizens to assist public security and state security officials in carrying out a wide array of «intelligence» work and has no geographical limitation.5 Hong Kong’s much-discussed new National Security Law goes even further and applies to so-called crimes against Hong Kong committed outside China’s borders, creating fear among Chinese students in Australia, among others.6

Individually and collectively, these types of threats to the pursuit of truth and academic freedom of expression pose a major societal challenge. Even in Scandinavia, where the public authorities normally provide strong support for scientific activities, other forces are pulling in the direction of what has been called a «post-factual state» or «post-truth society» where emotion-based arguments have primacy over facts and truth. Resistance to facts feeds on economic and cultural polarisation, cognitive biases and a fractured media situation that allows instant proliferation of disinformation and casts doubts over factual knowledge and expertise.7 A knowledge overview published by Lund University states that «there is broad consensus among researchers that the post-truth society, the spread of fake news and the lack of critical thinking are a serious threat to democracy.»8

It is important to point out that the legal freedom of expression also protects denial of facts, personal opinions, shocking and offensive allegations, and to a certain extent also lies. Facts and research cannot be defended by limiting the general freedom of expression, but through even more active application of academic freedom of expression to disseminate knowledge and actively participate in discussions with knowledge that has been checked and verified using scientific methods.

6.2 Influences on content, methods, results and dissemination

6.2.1 Political, structural and academic priorities

Political and other priorities regarding what is to be taught and researched, and how, will also influence how academic staff and students use their academic freedom of expression.

Prioritisation takes place through national choices regarding research and education, choices and rankings within the Research Council of Norway, and institutional priorities at the overall, faculty and departmental level. Individual research groups and research projects also make choices regarding which directions to pursue that will in turn influence what staff and students direct their attention towards.

These priorities affect what is being researched and what is taught. This, in turn, will affect what academic content society can have access to. The priorities are related to funding and infrastructure, but not least also to time. If time is not specifically allocated for dissemination, academic freedom of expression will be weakened.

In Norway, these kinds of priorities have rarely generated much debate, but there are exceptions. In its seven-year research and innovation programme Horizon Europe 2021–2027, the EU has established dedicated «missions» related to major societal challenges and has generally weighted the programme more heavily towards innovation and commercialisation. Critical questions have been raised about the wisdom of this and whether it will come at the expense of free research. Questions have also been raised about the consequences this will have at the national level and the priorities that must be made here. These are important questions, with potential consequences for academic freedom of expression.

National priorities contribute to more knowledge-based policies, for example in the form of increased funding for research in renewable energy that can provide a knowledge-based foundation for political decisions on the green transition. This kind of knowledge is a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. They also contribute to ensuring that the workforce is qualified to meet future societal challenges, for example in the form of increased educational capacity in health and care subjects to cope with the ageing population, and boosting capacity within ICT.

One aspect of prioritisation concerns how much funding should be channelled through the Research Council of Norway relative to the basic funding that the individual universities and university colleges receive. Among other things, the commission that was appointed in autumn 2021 to investigate research funding will assess consistency in the government’s funding across forms of allocation (including block grants to universities and university colleges and allocations via the Research Council of Norway and the Directorate for Higher Education and Skills – HK-dir, among others).

In Norway, the public universities and university colleges receive nearly 80 per cent of their income in the form of basic grants from the state. This is very high compared with other countries. Moreover, the appropriations from the state have increased steadily over the past ten years.9

In Denmark, it has been decided, through a political negotiation process, that thousands of study places are to be moved out of Denmark’s largest cities and established in smaller towns. The decision also indicates which subject areas are to be prioritised in the decentralisation of study places. The cuts in the number of study places that the universities in the major cities will have to make will largely be in the humanities. Priorities in one area can thus also lead to deprioritisation of other areas. In other countries, controversial topics are discouraged and deprioritised at the national level. This has obvious chilling potential for academic freedom of expression within the deprioritised disciplines.

Through institutional priorities at various levels, the institutions also make academic choices. Examples of this include the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU)’s prioritisation of PhD candidates in the University’s strategic research area of sustainability, the University of Tromsø’s prioritisation of Arctic research, and the prioritisation of five special focus areas for the period 2019–2023 at the University of Oslo’s Faculty of Humanities. These are legitimate prioritisations to ensure particular considerations are addressed. Nevertheless, they can also have consequences for those subject areas that do not receive the same level of attention – also with regard to which academic dissemination activities and exchange of opinions will consequently be deprioritised by staff and students.

6.2.2 Institution vs. individual – who is responsible for ensuring quality?

The Universities and University Colleges Act provides guidance on the relationship between the institutions’ responsibilities and freedoms, but it is not completely unambiguous. There is a tension embedded in section 1-5 of the Universities and University Colleges Act. Pursuant to this provision, the institutions must «promote and safeguard academic freedom». However, the institutions are also responsible for «ensuring that teaching, research and academic and artistic development work maintain a high professional level and are conducted in accordance with recognised scientific, artistic, educational and ethical principles.»

How can the management of a university fulfil its responsibility for ensuring that teaching, research and academic and artistic development work maintain a high professional level and are conducted in accordance with recognised scientific, artistic, educational and ethical principles, while at the same time safeguarding and promoting the individual’s academic freedom (of expression)?

An academic’s choice of research topic and methodology can easily be influenced by the institution’s duty to maintain a high professional level and adherence to recognised scientific, artistic, educational and ethical principles. A head of department may believe that an academic employee’s choice of method is inappropriate and that a different method ought to be used. How can the employees’ freedom to choose their own method pursuant to the fifth paragraph of section 1-5 of the Universities and University Colleges Act be maintained in this kind of case?

This issue comes to the fore where quality considerations are supplemented by other compelling considerations that academic freedom must also be balanced against. An example of this is research projects involving human trials. It may be unethical to invite people (healthy or ill) to take part in a trial, if the method is weak, such that the results may not have the required quality. Should this assessment be left entirely to the Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics (REK), in cases where they are involved (see section 6.3.3)? The type of research that can be done has an impact on the type of knowledge that will be generated, and thus on academic freedom of expression and society’s freedom of information.

Most teachers are subject to evaluations of their study programme. If these evaluations repeatedly show poor results, at what point and in what way should the institution intervene? When does the institutional responsibility for quality of teaching outweigh the individual academic’s freedom to plan their own teaching? How well suited are evaluations as a tool for measuring teaching quality? How vulnerable are they to negative reactions to a teacher’s unpopular or politically incorrect views, rather than poor teaching quality?

6.2.3 Controversial research topics

Some research topics are controversial. These include politicised issues and areas with strong, conflicting moral or commercial interests.

Typical examples are research on migration, equality, gender and climate. Topics such as salmon farming, predator management and ME research have also sparked considerable debate in Norway. Research related to the COVID-19 pandemic has been mired in controversies, conspiracy theories and threats – albeit to a lesser extent in Norway than in most other countries. In an international research and learning environment, free expression of views about authoritarian regimes can present a number of problems. The analogy that the public sphere can feel like a «war zone» to some disseminators is particularly apt for people who do research on controversial topics of various kinds.

Researchers say that facing moral condemnation or being embraced in the debate by far-right groups with views that are far removed from their own can make them reluctant to disseminate their research. In addition, having their scientific assessments distrusted on the basis of who they are is highlighted as having a clearly «chilling» effect on their willingness to engage in dissemination. An example of this is a migration researcher who was regarded as saying what he said «because he was a white man».10 This kind of opposition may come from the broader public sphere, but also from parts of the academic community that are highly focused on theoretical directions, such as critical race theory or structural racism.11

The Commission has received several consultative statements suggesting that some research communities tend to either avoid controversial research topics altogether or avoid engaging in dissemination and contributing to debate on controversial topics and findings. The Universities and University Colleges Act Commission (the Aune Commission) also highlighted this problem.12

Avoiding relevant research topics for these kinds of reasons has a range of negative consequences. It limits academics’ freedom to choose their topic of research and method. It may also interfere with their teaching, through their being subject to resistance of a non-argumentative and non-academic nature from students who perceive their research interests or findings to be undesirable or offensive. Avoiding certain topics will also affect what and how the academics can and want to communicate. In addition to these negative consequences for the individual researcher, there are also a host of downsides for our common seeking of truth and freedom of information: We end up not getting answers to important questions that we might otherwise have gained knowledge-based insight into, or only gaining partial insight based on less quality-assured sources of information.

6.2.4 External influences

In addition to the fact that national authorities have the opportunity to assign greater or lesser priority to various research areas through their allocation of resources, they can also exert influence on academia in other ways. Politicians and authorities have power over academia not only in their capacity as owner, but also through their strong influence in public life.

Impartial criticism from the authorities is something academia must of course expect – and indeed welcome. It can contribute to and improve their seeking of the truth, thereby strengthening the academic mission. In view of the power imbalance, however, unfair criticism that, without foundation, seeks to cast doubt over academics’ scientific methods and work may easily undermine the public trust in science on which academia depends.

There have been instances of these kinds of statements in Norway. A former minister of fisheries announced that he would take on the «dark counter-forces» in academia and elsewhere, which were damaging the reputation of the Norwegian fishing industry, because they did not produce research results that aligned with Norwegian export interests.13 In a parliamentary debate, a former foreign minister and several members of parliament dismissed criticism of a Supreme Court legal opinion by law researchers as showing a lack of respect and «disdain» for the Supreme Court.14

These kinds of cases are few and far between in Norway, whereas they may be far more systematic in other countries. In many countries, it is also highly controversial to criticise the regime and their politics. This is rare in Norway. A more practical challenge is the question of the extent to which academics are willing to conduct research on fields or engage in dissemination activities or public inquiries, when the results of such work are consistently «prettied up», used selectively for political ends, or simply shelved.

Headlining criticism from «the fourth state power» (i.e. the press and other mass media) can be daunting, but is something academics have to live with, and ideally respond to in an appropriate manner. However, media criticism can also be unfounded or have ulterior motives. It may then not only silence individual researchers, but may also undermine confidence in the particular academic communities in particular and research in general. An example of this is when the Norwegian daily newspaper Klassekampen dismissed a researcher at the Institute for Defence Studies as being in thrall to US sources, when in January 2022 she said that all the indications pointed towards Russia going to war against Ukraine.15

External influence can come from other quarters. Industries, sectors of society, patient associations and other interest groups (both those that co-fund academia and those that do not) can exert pressure on institutions, individual employees and students in various ways. This can create dilemmas for the individual employee and student, as well as for the management. Why don’t they silence unpopular scientist X, why doesn’t the institute speak up against Y?

Co-funding arrangements can make this type of influence particularly problematic. Most such partnerships do not entail exertion of problematic influence. External partners can contribute valid criticism and correctives in a positive way, thus bettering the research and development work. One factor that can play a part here is the «maturity» of the industry the researchers are collaborating with. According to the consultative statements the Commission has received, the oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry are examples of industries that previously sometimes exerted very problematic influence, but which have now largely (with some assistance from regulations) «matured». The aquaculture industry is regarded as still having potential for further maturation.

6.2.5 Media and communication

Academic staff and students depend on channels of dissemination for their academic dissemination to reach a wide audience and for the knowledge to benefit the general public. Some of these channels are edited, other are unedited. The channels present various challenges for academic freedom of expression.16

The edited media share the same civic mission as academia in respect of seeking the truth and helping people understand the world (i.e. «enlightenment»). They are also similar in their use of investigative and exploratory methods in their work. However, there are also a number of key differences in the way journalists (including editors) and academics think and work. These pertain to how deeply they immerse themselves in issues, how concerned they are with nuances, and not least how much time they are able to spend on the cases they are working on. Given the increased competition from unedited media, speed is becoming increasingly important for the media’s production of content. The media are also under pressure to sell, resulting in the use of tabloid methods such as dichotomies, appeal to emotions, exaggeration, focus on individuals, erasure of nuances and details, and an underlining or magnification of sensational quotes or information. This can result in journalistic and academic needs colliding in ways that impact readiness to engage in academic dissemination and the desire to contribute to public enlightenment.

Several of the consultative statements highlight unpleasant media experiences. They may be due to journalists with clear motives regarding a specific angle, «stupid questions», misrepresentative descriptions or very short time limits for both statements and checking quotes. A climate scientist was quoted on the front page of the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten as having said «The Gulf Stream is stopping» accompanied by a picture of Oslo under a thick layer of snow. Medical experts have experienced being pitted against each other with opposing statements on pandemic management, even though they may not in fact disagree. Not only can this impede public enlightenment and be uncomfortable for the individuals involved, it can also create a poorer climate of cooperation among academics, even if the impressions people have of their peers are only based on media-created misunderstandings.17 When a calm and collected law professor was misquoted in bold in a major article as saying «I completely lost it», despite having opposed the misformulation when checking the statements ascribed to him, the press’s subsequent correction and apology was of little help: «Correction: In the printed version of this article, Christian Conrad Eriksen was misquoted under the picture of him on page 8. Morgenbladet apologises.» An experienced disseminator can take this in their stride, including being called Christian when his name is in fact Christoffer. However, these kinds of stories spread quickly, and may well make less hardened academics reluctant to voice an opinion when a journalist calls.

Journalistic ethics and standards intended to maintain public trust18 can challenge the role of experts: In an interview, a researcher on Poles in Norway mentioned the government’s quarantine exemption for migrant workers as one explanation for the harassment Poles in Norway experienced during the pandemic. Without informing the researcher, NRK labelled the interview with a statement that the researcher was affiliated with the Norwegian Labour Party. The researcher felt that doubt was being cast over their expertise. Is membership of a political party always relevant when researchers voice an opinion on academic issues that also have a political dimension? We already know that one in three researchers are reluctant to participate in public debates because they are afraid of being perceived as political actors when they are participating as academic experts:19 What implications might this have for researchers’ readiness and desire to engage in political discussions – for their own benefit and that of society? In what circumstances should researchers state their political affiliations? In what circumstances should the media add this information? Should the need for labelling be discussed as a premise for interview situations?

This type of challenge is partly the responsibility of the media. Ideally, the media should demonstrate understanding of academics’ objectives, working methods and requirements concerning academic integrity, such as their focus on particular nuances that might appear unimportant, and the need to check their own cited statements as a result of this. Most good journalists do this. Many strive to act as an intermediary between experts and the general public. As is the case for academics, it is also in the media’s interests to maintain a clear distinction between substantiated knowledge and opinions.

Although balance in presentations is important, it can sometimes go too far. It is important to allow opinions that challenge established truths to be voiced. However, it is not always good truth-seeking practice to present documented facts and speculative or unsupported allegations in exactly the same fashion. Poorly considered and false balance in, say, the coverage of climate research or the side effects of vaccines may undermine people’s understanding of the importance of the scientific search for truth.

The internet and unedited media provide academics with new opportunities to share their knowledge with the outside world, to find out about the work of other academics, and to participate in new forums and networks for knowledge exchange and discussion. Freedom of information in particular has been greatly expanded. However, online public spheres are fundamentally changing the way society obtains knowledge about the world and about what is real and true. The absence of editorial «gatekeepers» can be liberating and enable the exchange of a much larger range of more controversial findings and ideas. Without them, however, quality assurance, ethical considerations and attempts at balance in the presentation of information also disappear. The opportunities that the internet creates for the exchange of academic information also present new challenges: Online public spheres rapidly generate large volumes of misinformation, for academics and the general public alike, which it is extremely demanding to detect and correct. Populism, contempt for elites, and campaigns for other types of social justice than those academics have traditionally stood for can be catalysts for threats, intimidation and other unfounded attacks. People who voice an opinion publicly may find themselves subjected to «comment wars» and twitter storms that, whilst fully legal, are overwhelming and thus extremely burdensome. The harsher the public spheres become – or at least appear to be – the less tempting it is to participate in them. Also for academics.

No matter how well or badly the edited and unedited media treat academics’ dissemination, academia must relate to the media and the public sphere as they are. This requires a greater understanding of how this «fourth state power» actually works and thinks, good understanding of the genres on the various unedited platforms, and training in how to make good use of them. We discuss how the institutions and individual employees and students can work to promote this in section 7.4.3.

Textbox 6.1 Dissemination advice

How to become a better research disseminator: Think about your audience!

  • 1. Talk to people

  • 2. Explain why this is important

  • 3. Avoid technical terminology and jargon

  • 4. Tell a good story

  • 5. Use images

  • 6. Use tables and figures

  • 7. Be concise

  • 8. Be prepared

Nancy Lea Eik-Nes, Associate Professor Emerita, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) (here in an abridged version).


Communications officers are bridge builders between academia and the public. Good communications officers are invaluable for academic staff and students who want to express themselves clearly and in accessible language, ensure their dissemination gets noticed, and understand more about how the various public spheres work.20 Some consultative statements point out that differences in attitudes and goals can sometimes make collaboration between academics and communications experts less fruitful. The communications industry’s focus on reputation building and positive publicity can mean unpopular findings and controversial statements receive less attention, and that «difficult» researchers get less help or promotion of their dissemination contributions than their colleagues. In their eagerness to promote good disseminators, communications departments’ own schemes and initiatives can sometimes also drown out other requests for dissemination, because academic employees have relatively little time for dissemination.

6.3 What academics can comment on as academic staff

6.3.1 Representation, use of titles and reputation

Employees have a duty of loyalty that can place restrictions on their freedom of expression. Since the mission of academic institutions and academic employees is the free pursuit of truth, the duty of loyalty will rarely restrict the freedom of expression of employees in academic posts.

In the media, academics occasionally voice opinions on social issues far beyond their own field of expertise. In many cases, these kinds of articles or posts are signed with their academic title and/or institutional affiliation. The media will also occasionally add this information at their own initiative, including in cases pertaining to matters that have nothing to do with the individual’s area of expertise.

The employer’s right to direct and supervise their workforce includes the right to decide who can speak on behalf of the institution or unit. However, employees have full freedom to express themselves as private individuals. By virtue of their academic freedom, ordinary academic employees who are not in management positions represent only themselves, not their institutions.

Legally, they are therefore free to comment on whatever they want, however they want. From a legal perspective, even sloppy dissemination about subjects in which the employee has no expertise can be presented with the individual’s title and institutional affiliation. An example might be if a marine biologist uses her title of professor when putting her signature to subjective claims about urban densification in the leafy residential area she just happens to live. A downside of this is that the public may be deceived into thinking the views have greater weight than they actually do since they come from a professor, while a potential upside is that it demonstrates to the public that even people with impressive academic qualifications are only human.

A basic tenet of democracy is that we have to trust in the ability of our fellow citizens to make good critical judgements about what they themselves read and hear. This is far from always the case. Many people are uncritical to the information they receive, and many people have an interest in manipulating the public sphere. However, these challenges cannot be overcome through government intervention. We do not have freedom of expression and freedom of information because we believe that everyone is intent on seeking the truth and promoting democracy and the individual’s freedom to form opinions – we have it because we do not believe that there is any authority that can, in real time, predict what effect expressions will have in the world, and how people will be influenced by them, and which expressions will lead to what, when and how.21

When expressing an opinion, whether academically or as a private citizen, academics who are in managerial positions – «head of department», «dean» or «rector» – may use their academic title. If they are so high up that they will be recognised as a person in a position of power without adding their title, it can be a good idea for them to clarify the capacity in which they are writing, to avoid any doubt as to whether, in this particular instance, they are writing as a private citizen or on behalf of the institution.

Irrespective of what the general freedom of expression protects, academic freedom of expression and responsibility of expression raise questions regarding when academic staff should use their title and/or institutional affiliation. The answer to this question in terms of research ethics is that title and field of study should be used when communicating as a researcher, but not when communicating as a private citizen.22 However, this distinction is not always easy to draw.

The Commission’s broad framing of academic freedom of expression is described in section 3.1. We regard this freedom and the responsibilities it entails as applying to all contributions based on the special knowledge, insight and experience that academics have in respect of both scientific and institutional issues. That is, communication linked to what the individual has done research on, knowledge and insights based on others’ research, information and discussion about their own field of study, on theories of science, methods, ethics and norms of objectivity and factuality – and on the structural prerequisites for academic work, from funding to administration. All dissemination on these kinds of issues may constitute exercise of academic freedom of expression. It is the individual’s responsibility to decide whether or not they should use their title in connection with dissemination activities.

The question of when academic staff should make statements as researchers occasionally arises as an extension of the managers’ duty of care for the reputation of the institutions and/or unit. How does it look when employees express controversial ideas or pontificate outside their fields of expertise in public arenas using their title and institutional affiliation? In some cases, it can look very bad indeed. However, the institution is not the employee. If a single, opinionated researcher can be so detrimental to an institution’s reputation – one has to wonder how robust that reputation really was in the first place.

Managers who react to what they believe to be reputation-damaging statements with internal reprimands or external comments must bear in mind that, in terms of labour law, they are in a position of authority vis-à-vis the researcher with whom they disagree. Sanctions and rebukes may have a significant chilling effect on the researcher’s readiness to communicate their research in the future, and may even verge on legal interference with their freedom of expression. At public institutions at least, managers and other people in leadership positions also have a positive duty to ensure that researchers can exercise their freedom of expression, in order to «create conditions that facilitate open and enlightened public discourse», as laid down in Article 100 (6) of the Constitution. How is this duty being fulfilled if views and opinions a manager disagrees with are quashed using institutional or employer powers, as opposed to countered using valid argumentation?

One way in which institutions can improve their reputation is to communicate more in the public domain. This communication should come from academics, not from the institutional management. It is an element of the responsibility of academic expression to contribute to the seeking of truth and good public enlightenment. This also entails a duty to counter publicly what one believes to be incorrect or poor dissemination of knowledge within one’s own fields, and to supplement the dissemination of knowledge that already exists, with more and better dissemination.

One question about the relationship between individual researchers and institutions is whether the institution itself can and should flag views on various social issues. The institutions have their own academic freedom, whereby they are independent of the state powers and the organisations that fund them. They can have their own opinions. This will be reasonably straightforward in connection with social issues that «everyone agrees on», such as the importance of democracy, equality, freedom of expression, etc. In other areas, however, such as climate change, the environment and energy, it may be more contentious, and in areas such as migration and gender, it can be highly controversial. Should a faculty or institute have an opinion on drug reform? What about employees who are «trapped» in a point of view with which they do not agree, based on academic or general grounds? Just as the institution is not the individual academic employee, the academic employee is not the institution. If an academic disagrees with views or information conveyed by their institution, they have a particular duty to argue against it, by virtue of their academic position.

Sometimes the distinction between institution and researchers can be rather blurred. One example of this is consultative statements from faculties or universities and university colleges. They may be written by engaged researchers in the field, but submitted in the name of the institution. Whose views do they then express? If they have been considered and approved by the institution’s decision-making or advisory bodies, it is reasonable to regard them as institutional views – with the added legitimacy and weight this can lend. If this is not the case and they have not even been reviewed by the management of the institution, it might be more appropriate to regard them as the researcher’s views. It is then a question of whether they should rightly be presented as coming from the institution.

It can be useful for the institutions to have guidelines to ensure there is information about and good processes for «institutional opinions».

Textbox 6.2 Academic freedom at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

Research shall be free and independent. NMBU does not take sides in academic debates.

Academic freedom and the independence of research are fundamental principles of the University’s activities.

What is «academic freedom»?

  • Academic freedom is a fundamental, mandatory invariable principle

  • Research is free and independent – no one can influence research results

  • Researchers are free to comment on academic issues, using their title and institutional affiliation

  • The University as an institution does not have opinions on academic issues

Academic freedom is about avoiding established power structures defining what research should be done.

Academic freedom shall be motivated by the independent development of knowledge for the benefit of society.

In the long run, society is best served by the independent development of knowledge, based on scientific principles and developed at an arm’s length from the state, industry and stakeholders.

This means that:

  • NMBU researchers can speak freely on an academic basis about animal welfare, agriculture and all other disciplines at NMBU.

  • When individual researchers from NMBU voice an opinion, using their title and institutional affiliation, they do so as experts in a field, not «on behalf of NMBU» as an institution.

  • NMBU has not taken and will not take sides in academic debates.

  • It is not a goal that all researchers at NMBU shall express similar views; on the contrary, we encourage many angles and academic debate.


6.3.2 Loyalty and uniforms

As pointed out in section 6.3.1, in democratic societies we must have confidence that all citizens are free to take a critical stance, including towards people who use their title and institutional affiliation to voice their opinion on matters far beyond their fields.

In some academic employment relationships, however, different dilemmas related to loyalty issues may arise. These dilemmas are not so much related to labour law, but rather because in some working relationships it can be more difficult for the general public to distinguish between different elements of an academic employee’s various roles. Academics may be considered as more of an exponent of that part of their work that has nothing to do with science and the pursuit of truth. This can create some particular challenges both for the individual academic employee and for their managers.

Normally, there should be no conflict between loyalty to one’s employer and full academic freedom of expression. However, situations may arise, at least at some institutions, where the duty of loyalty and full freedom of expression may appear to be in conflict and create a dilemma.

This pertains primarily to academic staff affiliated with the so-called «uniform schools», i.e. the Norwegian Police University College and the Norwegian Defence University College, but it may also be an issue for «uniformed» health workers. When these individuals express a view while wearing a uniform – are they speaking as a private citizen, as an academic, or on behalf of the government agency? In terms of the law, these academics also have the freedom to express themselves in the manner they think best. They have a loyalty to the pursuit of truth, to society and to their agency.

On the one hand, a uniform can lend greater legitimacy to the individual academic expressions and help highlight the importance of defence and policing in society. The fact that the Norwegian Armed Forces and the police have uniformed researchers who have full academic freedom means critical questions can also be raised about the institutions and policies. Moreover, the fact that they can dedicate time to seeking the truth can build trust not only in the research, but also in the agencies. Precisely by virtue of their dual competency as both government employees and academic staff, they may have insights that are particularly important for their research, teaching and dissemination. In addition, nothing actually changes when they remove their uniform – they are still who they are. However, the dilemmas that may arise from the exercise of academic freedom of expression while wearing a uniform require an additional focus on understanding the role of uniformed academic staff and a high level of understanding on the part of their superiors of the various roles these employees must fulfil. These dilemmas cannot be «resolved» by any other means than open, reflective discussion in the institutions where the questions arise.

This issue is particularly important for employees and administrators at the Norwegian Police University College and the Norwegian Defence University College, since the police and the Norwegian Armed Forces are in charge of the two sides of the state’s monopoly over the means of violence.

In Norway, the military is subject to civilian control, and the Norwegian Armed Forces must adhere loyally to the political decisions that are made. Such decisions are not always entirely clear, and yet the Norwegian Armed Forces must operationalise them into concrete actions. How then should a researcher in military uniform who, say, publicly expresses opposition to political decisions on television be interpreted? Few people would think that the Storting should start preparing for a military coup, but uniformed criticism of political decisions may raise some fundamental questions. In theory, the uniformed researcher can be sent on a mission with which she has publicly expressed dissatisfaction. Will her colleagues, superiors and the public then continue to have confidence in her? These questions can be countered by approaching them from the opposite angle and instead regarding the uniformed researcher as an academic employee: Do we have full confidence in research from a uniformed and loyal employee of the Norwegian Armed Forces? How do we know that the person in question is «really» a researcher, and not just speaking on behalf of the agency, and in line with political decisions? Some of the same issues also arise at the Norwegian Police University College, albeit in a slightly different form.

If academic statements are erroneously taken to be statements made on behalf of the police or the armed forces, the public may interpret them as a message from the authorities supported by an agency that has the power to exercise the means of violence. Misunderstandings of this nature can also cause citizens to self-censor any counter-arguments they might have wanted to express. If they come from academic staff in the Norwegian Armed Forces, they might also have effects that do not align with foreign policy and security policy objectives, in times of conflict, crisis and war. Other states may not necessarily be accustomed to military employees having academic freedom of expression. They may thus perceive statements from uniformed academic staff as conveying official Norwegian standpoints on defence issues. They might also use these statements as evidence of this for propaganda purposes, for example. The closer we are to a crisis or war situation, the more important it becomes for the educational institutions to continuously assess the various aspects of uniform use in connection with dissemination activities.

If doctors or other health professionals voice an opinion wearing their scrubs or «uniform», it can be difficult to tell whether they are expressing themselves individually as a researcher or as a doctor employed at the relevant institution, and thus what authority or status their statements have. This has been exemplified numerous times during the COVID-19 pandemic. None of the consultative statements the Commission has received mention or imply that the public debate in Norway on COVID-19 with and among «uniformed» health professionals has created any such uncertainty. Rather, our impression is that the exchanges that have taken place have contributed to meaningful discussion about how the pandemic could best be handled. From this angle, the impact of this particular dilemma of uniformed academic freedom of expression appears to have underscored the building of trust that free speech and public disagreement among experts can also contribute to.

6.3.3 Rules and guidelines that limit academic freedom

The right to academic freedom is enshrined in the Universities and University Colleges Act. However, academia in general and research in particular are also subject to other regulations. In recent months, there has been debate, including in the online newspaper for higher education and research Khrono,23 that the law is preventing necessary research. This debate has partly arisen as a result of discussions about research into the various measures implemented in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the consultative statements the Commission has received also suggest that the systems for assessing possible scientific misconduct may pose a threat to freedom of expression.

According to the OsloMet report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]:

Academic freedom cannot exist without a protected space that ensures that responsible choices can be made regarding research questions and forms of interaction. Research, teaching and dissemination must be based on a sufficiently broad spectrum of possibilities, enabling systematic seeking of the truth and the necessary distance from external interests.
In other words, academics need an arena that is free from illegitimate restrictions. There are several types of restrictions that can narrow down the arena for academic freedom in a purely descriptive sense, but which in fact curtail freedom of choice that goes beyond the norms of research or fundamental legal principles. Examples, such as the fact that research must be conducted in accordance with the principles of the Helsinki Declaration and the fact that contractual terms and conditions must be respected, do not in themselves narrow down the arena for exercising academic freedom per se. However, these kinds of legitimate restrictions may of course be linked to illegitimate limitations when they are administered in a problematic manner, such as if rules for data collection or loyalty to the institution that has commissioned the research impede critical research.24

Academic freedom entails both rights and obligations. Regulations in the areas of research ethics, protection of privacy and protection against discrimination are in principle both legitimate and necessary restrictions on academic freedom. The same applies to research ethical norms. Research ethics can also be said to be a prerequisite for academic freedom, in that research ethics articulate the duties that make academic freedom possible.25

In the white paper Report no. 19 to the Storting (2020–2021) Styring av statlige universiteter og høyskoler [Governance of public universities and university colleges], the Ministry of Education and Research writes the following in respect of academic freedom:

Although academic freedom is far-reaching, it is not absolute. Researchers and educators are subject to the same laws and regulations as others, and research is also subject to separate ethical rules and guidelines. Although the employer’s right to direct and supervise employees in academic positions is limited by the provisions on academic freedom, this only applies to academic matters, and academic freedom applies within the framework of the position and the employment contract. In other words, it is both possible and desirable to combine the individual’s academic freedom with good academic leadership at the ground level, strategic planning at the institutional level, and the government’s knowledge policy at the national level.

In particular, protection of privacy and research ethics will entail restrictions on which research projects can be carried out. The discussions show that there is a lack of knowledge in many research communities about the regulations, and not least about who is responsible for the various assessments and decisions. This in itself poses a challenge. It is also problematic if the parties that enforce privacy and ethical norms do so in ways that do not adequately take into account the fine balance that must be achieved between the considerations behind these norms and the considerations behind freedom of expression, freedom of information and academic freedom.

Research ethics

The purpose of the Research Ethics Act26 is to ensure that all research carried out by public and private institutions is conducted in accordance with recognised norms of research ethics. The Act imposes a duty of due care on researchers to ensure that all research is conducted in accordance with these norms, and imposes a duty on all research institutions to ensure that all research carried out at the institution is conducted in accordance with these norms.

Special rules apply to medicine and health research. The Health Research Act27 sets requirements regarding the organisation of medical and health research. The project manager, the research coordinator and the research institution are all ascribed responsibilities. All medical and health research involving human beings, human biological material or personal health data must be approved in advance by one of the Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics (REK). The Act does not stipulate in closer detail what it is that the Regional Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics is to assess, other than that the committee must «undertake a standard evaluation of the research ethics of the project and judge whether the project satisfies the requirements laid down in this Act or pursuant to this Act» (cf. section 10). In practice, the Regional Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics undertakes a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the project in respect of research ethics and makes sure that the project as a whole is ethically sound. When done well, overall assessments of this nature do not pose a challenge to academic freedom and academic freedom of expression. On the contrary, they are a prerequisite for them. The Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics also assess the processing of personal data that the projects will entail. This applies, among other things, to whether data collection, data management, sharing of data and data ownership are in accordance with the rules on non-disclosure of confidential information and protection of privacy. In other words, there is a slight overlap between the Health Research Act and the rules on protection of privacy in this area. Irrespective of this, it is the research institution that is responsible for ensuring compliance with the requirements concerning protection of privacy. The National Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics (NEM) is the appeals body for decisions made by the Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics.

For other research, the individual researcher and institution are responsible for safeguarding research ethics, without any requirements for prior consent. The National Committee for Research Ethics in Science and Technology (NENT) and the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) have prepared guidelines for research ethics in their respective fields. These supplement international guidelines. The committees can provide advice and guidance in specific cases. The Guidelines for Research Ethics also contain rules on the protection of research participants and their personal data. Informed consent is one of the mainstays of research ethics, and it is up to the individual researcher and research institution to assess whether it will be ethically sound to conduct research on people without obtaining their consent.

Protection of privacy

The Norwegian Personal Data Act28 implements the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) into Norwegian law. The GDPR applies as Norwegian law and lays down the main requirements in connection with the handling and processing of personal data in research. The GDPR ascribes responsibility for data protection to the data controller, which in the context of research will be the research institution, not the individual researcher. According to the GDPR and Norwegian law, all use and processing of personal data must have a valid legal basis. For researchers, this basis may be the consent of the research participants or, for example, section 8 of the Norwegian Personal Data Act on the processing of personal data for purposes related to scientific or historical research. The GDPR also has rules on data minimisation, purpose limitation, information security, and storage limitation, among other things.

The GDPR requires all undertakings that process personal data to designate a data protection officer, who must be involved in all matters concerning the handling and processing of personal data. The data protection officer may be a person within the undertaking or an external provider. The former Norwegian Centre for Research Data (NSD), which has now been incorporated into Sikt – the Norwegian Agency for Shared Services in Education and Research, advises a number of research institutions on data protection issues. NSD/Sikt has received some criticism for their work, including that they are preventing research. Several major undertakings have organised themselves in such a way that research projects must be routinely submitted to the data protection officer and the data protection adviser. This places a heavy burden of responsibility on the data protection officer and the data protection adviser: In addition to safeguarding protection of privacy considerations, they must also take freedom of expression and freedom of information into account, and strike a good balance between these disparate, and sometimes contradictory, needs.

The Commission would point out that pursuant to the GDPR, the role of data protection officer cannot approve projects, but only make a recommendation. Responsibility lies with the relevant undertaking where the data processing takes place. This places similarly high demands on the undertakings to strike a good balance between the different, and sometimes contradictory, considerations. It is also important to note that the referenced practice is part of the internal administration and case processing that is not governed by the GDPR or Norwegian law.

The data protection rules impose constraints on the sharing of research data. In particular, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the European Court of Justice’s decision in the Schrems II judgment have created legal challenges for the transfer of personal data to countries outside the EEA, such as pseudonymous health data for use in medical research. This has particular implications for collaboration with the USA on research involving the use of register data. The rules place strict restrictions on the possibilities for research collaboration and sharing of research data with research institutions outside Europe. The Commission will not go into this in any further detail.

The institutions’ responsibilities

It is important that the institutions are aware of their own responsibility for research ethics in general, and the data protection regulations in particular. The academic staff and other employees who have an influence on the academic tasks must receive training and be involved in competence building and ensuring the system is designed in a way that promotes good compliance.

The institutions must themselves discuss and decide how much verification and monitoring there should be and how much the individual researcher should be trusted to comply with the rules. Raising awareness and knowledge among the staff will be an important first step. In addition, there must be clear understanding that protection of privacy is safeguarded partly by rules laid down in legislation and partly by research ethical norms, how these norms relate to each other – and what other rights and considerations they must be weighed up against. In order to establish good administrative routines and distribution of responsibilities, knowledge of these issues is needed at all levels. Knowledge is also necessary to be able to formulate well-founded needs for improvements. This must be included in the training that employees must receive in research ethics (pursuant to the Research Ethics Act) and academic freedom (cf. the Commission’s proposal in section 7.2.2).

Other actors, such as the national ethics committees, the Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics, the protection of privacy service provided by Sikt – the Norwegian Agency for Shared Services, must also be clear in their communication and in their roles.

Several research communities have noted that the current regulations for the processing of personal data, especially in connection with medical and health research, make it difficult to do research on the pandemic and the measures that have been implemented in an attempt to control it. The Commission is aware that work is underway under the auspices of several ministries (including the Ministry of Education and Research and the Ministry of Health and Care Services) and government agencies (including the Norwegian Institute of Public Health – FHI, Statistics Norway – SSB, and the Research Council of Norway – NFR) to look at access to data to improve the knowledge base in times of crisis.29 The goal is to investigate how research on measures can be initiated promptly, without violating requirements concerning data protection or sensitive data. They will also look at infrastructure for sharing and using data.

This is of fundamental importance. The pandemic provides a good example of the dilemmas that can arise at the intersection of data protection/research ethics and freedom of information: Measures that interfere with fundamental rights – such as bans on receiving visitors in private homes, mandatory quarantine and travel restrictions – not only require a valid basis to be legal, they must also be appropriate, necessary and proportionate. Otherwise, they can easily entail both constitutional and human rights violations. In the absence of research on whether the various measures even work, and how they work, it is difficult to argue that they are appropriate and necessary. In this case, can we continue to use them?

Some of the consultative statements point out that journalists can gather personal data without the same kinds of restrictions that researchers face. Article 85 of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) obliges member states to provide for exemptions or derogations from the provisions in a number of chapters of the Regulation for the processing of personal data that takes place for journalistic purposes and for the purposes of academic, artistic or literary expression to the extent necessary to reconcile the right to the protection of personal data with the right to freedom of expression and information. This exception has most recently been discussed in the bill Proposition no. 158 to the Storting (2020–2021) on amendments to the Personal Data Act and Freedom of Information Act (freedom of expression and information, etc.),30 as well as in the preparatory works from 2018.31 The Commission will not go into this in any further detail, but recommends that greater attention be paid to these issues throughout the entire sector.

6.3.4 Academic freedom of expression in a changing geopolitical landscape

Both collaboration and limitations on collaboration can challenge academic freedom

The ideal of open, free research with unobstructed access to knowledge cannot be realised without international collaboration. For Norwegian institutions and researchers, this kind of collaboration must be based on a foundation of academic freedom and freedom of expression, but these values are often challenged in a world where a majority of countries do not have a democratic system of government.32 These kinds of challenges can manifest themselves in a number of different ways.

First, Norwegian researchers’ academic freedom of expression might be compromised in international collaborations. We depend on foreign research results being reliable, and many researchers in Norway collaborate with researchers in countries with challenging regimes. The fact that researchers in some other countries do not have academic freedom constitutes a risk for research in Norway, as we cannot be certain that the findings are not politically motivated. Norway receives some vulnerable academics and students from countries that may qualify for official assistance through the international Scholars at Risk (SAR) scheme and the Norwegian Students at Risk (StAR) scheme (see the discussion in section 4.5). These individuals are given the opportunity to continue their research or studies and finish their degree at Norwegian universities and university colleges. The schemes also help Norwegian institutions gain a broader perspective on the situation in other countries. Scholars at Risk encourages universities and university colleges to invite the persecuted researchers and students to speak on campus. The most important channel for disseminating research is through education and teaching, and encounters with SAR colleagues or StAR students adds invaluable content to the students’ learning.33

Second, international research collaboration is often hampered by migration policy, restrictions on labour immigration and visa restrictions.34 This has an impact in both directions: Norwegian institutions may have difficulty recruiting skilled researchers to Norway, and Norwegian researchers may experience problems getting a visa to visit other countries – or will only be granted a visa on the condition that they refrain from criticising the regime.

Third, Norwegian researchers collaborating with researchers in certain countries may experience restrictions due to the Norwegian authorities wanting to prevent the transfer of certain types of knowledge and expertise for security policy reasons. The openness and transparency on which knowledge institutions are based and depend also render universities and university colleges vulnerable. The stricter export control rules that are going to be introduced in Norway may severely restrict Norwegian institutions’ international research collaboration on grounds of security policy considerations. Norway is a leader in research, technology development and industry in areas that countries like Russia and China are also trying to develop. Within the natural sciences and technology, research and development related to defence, health, maritime technology, petroleum and space are especially at risk.35 There are also particular challenges associated with collaboration and knowledge transfer in sensitive disciplines in some parts of the social sciences. The new regulations will probably entail that research projects and collaborations that have previously been covered by academic freedom will in the future be subject to approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.36

Fourth, openness and transparency also make institutions vulnerable to foreign intelligence, espionage and data breaches. Electronic surveillance or hacking can occur when Norwegian researchers are staying in partner countries or through cyber attacks in Norway against institutions or individual researchers. For example, in 2021 a German–Iranian researcher at a Norwegian university was charged with contributing to the hacking of the university’s computer system that contained information that is subject to export control. He has been charged with sharing information about Norwegian defence materiel with a group of Iranian guest researchers and giving them access to the university’s laboratories. In their national threat assessments for 2022, both the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) and the Norwegian Intelligence Service issued strong warnings about Chinese and Russian intelligence in Norwegian research and educational institutions, which experience data breaches with surprising regularity.37 Both Russia and China are priority partner countries for Norway in the fields of research and education.

Fifth, some foreign nations may exert influence or put pressure on researchers and students in Western countries. Influence may also take the form of the establishment of institutions or programmes that promote certain national or political interests. In Norway, there has been debate about the now discontinued Confucius Institute at the University of Bergen38 and the Fudan-European Centre for China Studies at the University of Oslo.39 To date, there is little known evidence of direct pressure on students or researchers in Norway of the type described in section 4.2.3; however, by way of an example, the head of the Norwegian Intelligence Service has pointed out that the Chinese Security Act obliges all Chinese citizens, including those in academia, to contribute to Chinese intelligence work if asked to do so.40 In its National Threat Assessment for 2022, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) states that Russian intelligence services in particular prioritise the recruitment of human sources in Norway, and this often takes place in professional settings such as seminars, conferences and trade fairs.

Partner countries with which Norway does not have an agreement on security policy cooperation

The challenges in connection with international collaboration are discussed in the government’s Panorama strategy (2021–2027).41 Panorama is the Norwegian government’s long-term plan to strengthen cooperation on higher education, research and innovation with nine strategically relevant partner countries outside the EU and EEA: Brazil, Canada, India, Japan, China, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the USA. The purpose of cooperation with these countries is to enhance the quality and relevance of the Norwegian knowledge sector, with links to trade and industry partnerships, building on reciprocity and accountability.

The strategy states that the government, in consultation with the higher education and research sector, will draw up national guidelines for responsible international cooperation in order to contribute to increased knowledge and awareness among Norwegian higher education and research institutions on the opportunities, challenges and dilemmas related to international cooperation. The challenges largely apply to academic cooperation with countries with which Norway does not have an agreement on security policy cooperation. In recent years, there has been growing focus in the media and in the sector itself on the delicate balancing act between continued openness in Norwegian higher education and research and national security considerations. The proposal to develop separate guidelines for responsible international cooperation has been inspired by similar initiatives in other countries in recent years, including Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK and Australia. Denmark and Finland are also currently working on measures in this area.

Since autumn 2020, the Ministry of Education and Research, in collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Justice and Public Security and the Ministry of Defence, has conducted regular meetings to discuss cooperation with China (the China roundtable). A number of issues are discussed at these meetings with the sector, such as guidelines for responsible academic cooperation with China, for example. In addition, the Research Council of Norway (NFR) and the Directorate for Higher Education and Skills (HK-dir) have established Meeting Place China for the institutions, which in recent years has itself developed a number of resources linked to collaboration with China in particular.42 The EU has recently published an advisory guide to reduce foreign interference in research and innovation cooperation.43

The export control rules also apply to research collaboration and in connection with admission and appointment of foreign persons in sensitive areas (see section 5.1.4). The Danish intelligence service has recently released a report on espionage threats, and like the Norwegian Intelligence Service has noted that students and researchers in particular are targets for foreign intelligence services’ attempts to gain access to research on artificial intelligence, quantum technology and biotechnology.44

Nationally, there has been a focus on strengthening preventive security work related to information security, protection of personal data and export control, and the security perspective has become more explicit in research coordination. Clear guidelines for cooperation that address intelligence threats, academic freedom and ethical issues are a high priority for the Norwegian authorities. The EU and OECD have also placed these issues high on the agenda. For Norway, it will be natural to coordinate positions and practices with like-minded countries within these organisations.

6.4 Institutional and structural prerequisites

6.4.1 New forms of governance and management in academia

Higher education and research have experienced significant growth in recent decades and have undergone a number of major reforms. Chapter 3 of the OsloMet report «Et ytringsklima under press?» [A climate of expression under pressure?] provides an account of these changes,45 some of which we will describe here.

Some of the new forms of governance and management at universities and university colleges may have come at the expense of more collegial forms of governance. This has an impact on the conditions for academic autonomy, and means academic staff are regarded more like ordinary employees.

The professionalisation and bureaucratisation of the sector has also blurred some of the dividing lines between academic and administrative issues, which may challenge academic freedom.

Furthermore, academia is now governed by a system of management by objectives and results, with funding schemes partially linked to the results achieved in research and education.46 By not including dissemination as an indicator, the governance system may be further undermining academia’s dissemination activities.

Increased international cooperation and the development of a global labour market have led to various reforms and structural changes in the sector. Greater emphasis on international strategies represents a form of political governance that can at times come into conflict with academic autonomy. Academic staff must spend more time on teaching, pedagogical training and administrative tasks, meaning they have less time for research and dissemination.

The emergence of the student-centric «service university», more external requirements regarding quality standards in higher education, and rising expectations of participation in organised, externally funded research with user involvement all undermine the individual autonomy of the academic staff.

6.4.2 Foreign researchers in Norwegian academia

International cooperation on higher education and research is crucial to ensure high quality. This has resulted in a relatively high proportion of international academic staff at Norwegian universities and university colleges. This enriches Norwegian academia in a variety of ways, but can also affect the culture of dissemination within Norway in ways that can challenge academic freedom of expression.

Many foreign researchers learn Norwegian very quickly, adapt to Norwegian cultural and social norms, and disseminate knowledge and insights that enrich the public sphere in Norway. Others receive or take little language training, and are more focused on the international research community in which they also participate than the national social framework in Norway. Some are only passing through Norway on their way up the career ladder, and may receive less encouragement and have less interest in spending time on learning Norwegian and engaging in broad public dissemination activities. Others come from cultures where young researchers at the bottom of the academic career ladder do not engage in public dissemination or intellectual discourse.

These factors may affect the individual researcher’s dissemination activities, and thus society’s access to information. This development also has a linguistic dimension that affects dissemination in several directions: As research communities become more international, more of the research discourse is conducted in English. This is excellent – not least for people whose first language is English. However, many academics find it harder to think and express themselves in a foreign language. Some Norwegian researchers – and some foreign researchers from non-English-speaking countries – would probably be able to express themselves better and more precisely within academia and further afield if they received better training in scholarly English. Regardless of the quality, an unfortunate side effect of increasing Anglicisation of the academic communities is depletion of Norwegian as an academic and technical language. This has a negative effect on academic freedom of expression both in the public arenas within the various spheres of expertise, but especially in the transfer of academic knowledge out to society. It becomes more difficult for the individual researcher to communicate their knowledge and insights – and also raises the threshold for accessing academic knowledge for people outside academia.

In its consultative statement to the Commission, the Language Council of Norway has stated the following:

Precise dissemination of knowledge in Norwegian society requires good, clear Norwegian academic and technical language. In this way, well-functioning academic and technical Norwegian is a prerequisite for a well-functioning Norwegian public sphere. At the same time, the maintenance and development of good academic and technical language is also important to ensure the legitimacy of the universities and university colleges: by communicating research rooted in Norwegian society to a Norwegian-speaking audience, and making relevant contributions to society. In order for research to be accessible to society in this way, there must be systems that enable and encourage employees at the universities and university colleges to disseminate their research to a broader public audience, and that this dissemination takes place in Norwegian.

In autumn 2021, there was extensive debate in Norway about the proportion of foreign researchers in permanent and leading academic positions in the higher education sector in Norway. Among other things, the question was raised as to whether this might entail an influx of cultures of academic freedom of expression from countries that have different, and often less open cultures of cooperation and free speech in working life in general and also within academic institutions. What implications will this have for academic freedom of expression in Norway, and how should this be addressed?

Little research has been done on dissemination activities. The studies that do exist indicate that about half of academics disseminate in broad news media.47 Eagerness to engage in dissemination activities varies according to the audience and type of research results. Academics’ willingness to communicate in news media and social media declines if the publication of their research findings might lead to negative reactions from their superiors or conflicts with their colleagues. Researchers are by far least willing to engage in dissemination of their research findings if these might be perceived as offensive to certain individuals or groups.48 One study found small differences in dissemination activities between researchers born in Norway and researchers born abroad.49 The Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU)’s Time Use Survey indicates that foreign researchers spend slightly more time on dissemination than Norwegian researchers.50

Several challenges have been highlighted in the consultative statements the Commission has received on this issue. Examples are academic disciplines where understanding of special Norwegian interests in an international perspective is central, or where Norwegian language and insight into Norwegian history and society are important. In these disciplines, the teaching offered in Norwegian language, history and culture must be strengthened, and expectations that dissemination must be regarded as an integral part of the academic mission, in line with the other academic tasks, must be stated more clearly.

In some disciplines, native speakers of Norwegian may find that they have to do an excessive share of certain tasks, because these tasks require Norwegian language proficiency or because special Norwegian professional education is required to teach certain compulsory subjects (for example, in law studies). Conversely, internal meetings that are primarily conducted in Norwegian (with all its various dialects) might exclude someone who is not fully proficient in Norwegian from fully participating in discussions about, for example, the distribution of tasks, resulting in the person in question ending up with what is left when everyone else has taken their pick.

The challenges that internationalisation can entail – be they in respect of the further development of Norwegian academic and technical language and dissemination, or in certain contexts related to safeguarding national interests and security – must primarily be addressed by strengthening the quality of the recruitment pool for academic posts in Norway. This work must start in schools. Other measures include strengthening Norwegian academic and technical language. These challenges cannot be resolved by limiting the recruitment of qualified international students or employees in academia.

Internationalisation is crucial for increased competency, increased innovative capacity and increased diversity. From this perspective, it can contribute to a richer, more varied exercise of academic freedom of expression. Norwegian universities do not score particularly highly in global rankings of internationalisation at academic institutions.51 Several factors indicate that more, not less, internationalisation is needed in the higher education sector in Norway. However, this must be done judiciously, taking into account the distinctive needs of the different disciplines, as well as the educational needs required to ensure a suitably qualified workforce in the future.

Textbox 6.3 Ten Commandments For a Young Man Who Wants To Get Ahead


The first commandment’s quite easy:

The majority is always right.


Always think what folk will say.

Side with the strongest, day by day.


When in doubt, just shut your trap

Until you see for whom they clap.


Think what opinions you should hold.

Alone, you’ll be out in the cold.


Don’t give your lofty instincts rein,

But stick to what will bring you gain.


Tell people what they want to hear;

Move quietly through every sphere.

(For truth brings sorrow on your head,

While daily lies earn daily bread.)


Never walk upright. Sidle forth.

And warm yourself at every hearth.


Praise everybody to the skies;

A flock of friends will be your prize.

(This in-group paradise will be

Your best insurance policy.)


Of gossip save up every bit

For your superiors’ benefit.

(But not a hint from the consumer

Should reach the subject of the rumour.)


If you this last commandment heed,

Then your future’s guaranteed:

Boldly espouse each cause in season,

But always act with prudent reason.

Stride bravely forward in life’s war

One hour before your time – no more!

Source Jens Bjørneboe (English translation by Esther Greenleaf Mürer)

6.4.3 Temporary positions – employment – career

PhD positions, «post.doc.» research positions and entry-level or «tenure track» positions are, by definition, temporary or «fixed term» positions; and if these are included, the proportion of temporary employees in the higher education sector is very high. Even excluding these, the share of temporary employees in this sector is still 12.8 per cent, which is some 50 per cent higher than the general rate of temporary employment in the workforce as a whole (8 per cent).

The institute sector has a higher share of external funding than the higher education sector, but has a lower rate of temporary employment.52 At the 35 institutes that are members of the Association of Norwegian Research Institutes (FFA), the rate of temporary employment is less than 1 per cent.53

Several consultative statements from individuals and organisations point out that temporary employment can have a negative impact on academic freedom of expression.

In its submission to the Commission, the Norwegian Association of Researchers (FF) writes, among other things:

One of the biggest challenges to academic freedom is lack of job security. It remains the case that far too many researchers are employed in temporary positions. The ability of researchers to seek and disseminate knowledge – including knowledge that might be unpopular, in that it contradicts received wisdom or concerns strong business interests, etc. – will depend on them feeling that they are safe to do so. Temporary employment is particularly common in externally funded activities. Temporary employees are in a relationship of dependency vis-à-vis established researchers and heads of research at the institution. Situations may therefore arise where they refrain from challenging existing knowledge and instead conform for strategic, career-related reasons. This constitutes a restriction on their academic freedom, and can discourage risky research and the challenging of received wisdom.

Studies conducted by the Young Academy of Norway (AYF) show that junior researchers feel that their research careers are characterised by uncertain future prospects and unstable working conditions, and also feel insecure or too ill-equipped to apply for a job outside the research sector. The Young Academy of Norway (AYF) emphasises that:

The growing proportion of young temporary employees in Norwegian academia, combined with the fact that many of these are also international employees who may have a weak connection to other actors in Norwegian society (such as trade unions) compared with their employer, may serve to weaken academic freedom of expression, both real and perceived.54

Scholarly publication and, to a lesser extent, teaching are important to be able to secure a permanent position and pursue a career in academia. This is not the case for dissemination, according to research by the Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU).55 Dissemination activities are already often a low priority among career-focused young academics, because they believe it is not the best use of their precious time; however, it will be even worse if these activities are avoided because they are considered too risky, as the Norwegian Association of Researchers (FF) writes.

Among other things, the OsloMet report queries whether independence and uncompromising intellectual honesty are losing ground to a socialisation (and selection) of young researchers among whom career orientation, strategic adaptation and conformity are increasingly being encouraged and rewarded. They support this claim by stating that this can be both a sum effect of structural changes in the systems for research and higher education and a result of characteristics of general cultural developments and the coddling of children and young people, rendering them ill-equipped for the rough and tumble of public debate and criticism. The authors do not have sufficient knowledge to assert that this is in fact the case, but find that the question merits further attention in the form of both research and debate.

The Commission concurs. Adapting one’s own expressed views and behaviour because advancing one’s own career and an easy life are rated more highly than abstract values such as freedom and courage to express one’s views is not unique to academia. However, in view of academia’s broad civic mission, and especially the seeking of truth and contributing to an enlightened public discourse, this kind of adaptation is particularly unfortunate. The Norwegian poet Jens Bjørneboe wrote a poem called Ten Commandments for a young man who wants to get ahead (see box 6.3). Perhaps it is the case that too many young and/or temporary employees at universities and university colleges are heeding these commandments.

6.4.4 The funding system

The funding system for universities and university colleges is described in section 5.3.2. Many of the consultative statements submitted to the Commission point out that the funding system does not promote dissemination activities, since it only rewards educational and research activities (and to a lesser extent sponsored and commission-based «BOA» activities). The Institute for Social Research (ISF) survey highlights lack of funding as by far the most important reason why academics fail to realise their research ideas.56 For a more detailed discussion of the funding system, see section 7.3.2.

6.4.5 External funding

Several of the consultative statements the Commission has received suggest that externally funded activities (primarily commissioned research) can inhibit academic freedom of expression, particularly at research institutes. This may be related to:

  • Researchers and academic communities not daring to be unpopular for fear of losing assignments. Defensive researchers mean society misses out on important knowledge.

  • Accusations that researchers and experts are controlled by their clients, i.e. that their research integrity is compromised.

  • Researchers and research groups that do large volumes of commissioned research not having time and space for free, critical research.

  • Clients wanting to influence how the research is planned, described, designed and presented. This can be especially challenging if the results of commissioned projects do not align with the client’s expected results.

By international standards, Norwegian universities and university colleges have a high level of direct funding from the state. The same also applies to the health trusts. Most of the external and competition-based funding comes from the Research Council of Norway (NFR), other public actors and the EU (see the overview in section 5.4). The scope of collaborative projects between universities and research institutes and the business sector varies, and in the natural sciences in particular, external funding constitutes a not-insignificant share of the total funding. This is mainly sponsored research. The institutions must remain aware of their role and responsibilities as academic institutions. User involvement is important, but can also have a negative impact; for example, it may lead to less power-critical research. It is important to have clear contracts that ensure – insofar as possible – the right to disseminate and publish the results and findings of the research. This is especially important in areas where there are conflicts of interest.

6.4.6 Norwegian in academia

There has recently been considerable debate about the use of Norwegian vs. English in academia in Norway. Some people argue that widespread use of English can create knowledge gaps and that Norwegian academic and technical language is deteriorating, while others argue that English must be used for their research and dissemination to reach a wider audience and to be able to communicate with their foreign peers. There is an overview of the status in this area in section 5.5.

The increasing number of international researchers in Norwegian academia may also pose a challenge in respect of the maintenance and development of well-functioning Norwegian academic and technical language. The Commission has also received other consultative input highlighting dilemmas and challenges related to increased internationalisation, which are discussed in section 6.4.2.

In its consultative statement to the Commission, the Language Council of Norway identifies three factors that are important for ensuring that research is communicated to and rooted in a Norwegian-speaking society. The first is development of Norwegian academic and technical language in line with developments in research in the various fields. The second is making provisions to ensure that employees have the time and resources to disseminate their research in Norwegian. The third factor is related to non-Norwegian-speaking employees: Steps must be taken to enable them to communicate their research in Norwegian, preferably by them learning Norwegian, but also through the provision of translation, language editing and proof-reading services. One measure to maintain Norwegian as an academic and technical language is work to develop terminology and bilingual glossaries.

Textbox 6.4

It would be highly regrettable if we end up in a situation where it is no longer possible to communicate academic findings and results to Norwegian society clearly and precisely.

Minister of Research and Higher Education Ola Borten Moe, interview in the daily newspaper Klassekampen, 13 November 2021.


In their consultative statement, the Great Norwegian Encyclopedia ( has reported out that they frequently face challenges in recruiting experts for their work (see the discussion of in section 5.5). At some of the universities, they find that many of the experts they contact say no to dissemination via, mainly because they cannot or do not want to prioritise spending time on work that yields little reward. points out that they need a system to be able to reward academics for their contributions and better registration in Cristin and other relevant registration systems.

In October 2021, 13 academics issued a petition in which they claimed that by disseminating knowledge, they are fulfilling one of the core tasks of academia.57 Despite this, dissemination is largely a low-priority task at the institutions. Non-fiction books are particularly vulnerable in this respect. One of the 13 academics, Alexander Sandtorv, has highlighted the challenges for academic writers from a freedom of expression perspective:

Books are one of the most important arenas for dissemination of academic knowledge, they make important contributions to the public’s understanding of the world, and they are the only place where longer, more complicated thoughts and ideas can be explored. Books are also particularly vulnerable, given the current structure in academia, both because they are so terribly time-consuming to produce, but also because it is not financially rewarding to write books and they do not «count» in the current bibliometrics-based funding system (the quantitative «tellekant» system). Many academic writers struggle to get everything done in their everyday working life, and I believe that this represents a freedom of expression problem. […]
There are many solutions: for example, the sector could implement measures to ensure opportunities for our authors – perhaps the right to take unpaid leave to concentrate on writing, perhaps some of their teaching time could be ear-marked for dissemination and writing (5–10%), and perhaps the sector could simply start by mapping the conditions for dissemination, because, as far as I am aware, much of our current knowledge about dissemination is merely anecdotal.

6.5 Culture of free speech

6.5.1 Reactions from colleagues – difficult climate of debate

Several of the consultative statements the Commission has received cite colleagues’ reactions as a main reason why academics do not want to or prefer not to engage in dissemination activities and exercise their academic freedom of expression. Negative reactions can be explicit or implicit. Being «silenced into submission» can also be very unpleasant and make further attempts at dissemination seem pointless or at least very unappealing – and certainly not a high priority.

The OsloMet report states:

A lack of support from above and a lack of solidarity among researchers – for example, in different disciplines or across generations – as well as a general scepticism towards colleagues sticking their necks out have been highlighted as general obstacles to good research dissemination (Heuman et al., 2020; Kierulf, 2017; Wig & Svensen, 2016). These kinds of internal obstacles take on even greater significance in situations where researchers are publishing controversial findings or assuming a contentious position in a public debate.58

A survey from the Institute for Social Research (ISF) shows that half of the academics surveyed believe that researchers should avoid participating in debates in the news media on topics they are not doing research on.59 This provides a very narrow scope for dissemination. It is far narrower than what researchers are entitled to voice opinions on, from a legal perspective, and it is also much narrower than the knowledge sharing and bridge building between academia and the broader public spheres that academic freedom of expression is intended to ensure. The survey also reveals that the research community opposes dissemination in several ways. It is not anonymous online trolls, but other researchers and colleagues who are most often behind unpleasant comments and threats to academics.60

These findings underline the impression the Commission has gained from a number of consultative statements of collegial pettiness and a poor culture of free speech in academia.

Academic freedom of expression enables sharp exchanges of opinion. However, condescension, ridicule, marginalisation and bias do not contribute to constructive debate between genuinely dissenting voices, as they often result in the people who are being attacked withdrawing and not feeling capable of or willing to continue disseminating. Academics too can get carried away by their feelings and pride when they come across expressions from other academics with which they disagree, and may sometimes respond in the spur of the moment rather than after sober, considered reflection. This can lead to upset and conflict, rather than a constructive, truth-seeking exchange of opinions. It is an element of the responsibility of academic expression to debate with colleagues with whom one disagrees in a manner that is as open, factual and honest as possible. The goal is to encourage more, not fewer, views to be shared. To avoid misunderstandings and unpleasantness in the public debate, academics should adhere to the golden rule from two-way radio communication: think, press, speak; which online might translate into: think, type, send.

There is also a difference between reactions from different types of peers – the more senior and established they are, the more demanding it can be to challenge them. Students are in an asymmetrical relationship with their supervisors and academic staff in general. Reactions from superiors raise some particular issues. Negative or unpleasant comments from superiors may have several dimensions in terms of labour law. They can be regarded as reprimands with more real power behind them than the opposition that academics receive from their colleagues, and they may have a stronger silencing effect. In uncomfortable exchanges of opinion between colleagues, academics who also have management roles must take extra care to ensure balance between their roles. Managers are responsible for maintaining a good working environment and preventing, for example, harassment, but they also have a responsibility to ensure that academic freedom of expression, including sharp exchanges of opinion, can take place without intervention from above. Intervening in heated exchanges can easily create the impression that the manager is taking sides with one party against another. We will return to this in section 7.4.2.

There is also a broad spectrum in terms of unpleasant expressions. Many are uncomfortable «only» because they constitute public opposition, sometimes in quite sharp forms. The only real way to deal with these kinds of public battles is counter-argumentation or simply letting it go and moving on, both of which get easier with practice. This is discussed in more detail in chapter 7.4.3.

Some unpleasant expressions are illegal. The most serious, such as criminal threats, stalking and hate speech, can be reported to the police. There are also other statutory and institutional norms in place to safeguard the working environment and avert some uncomfortable interactions. Harassment and other forms of improper conduct are prohibited under the Working Environment Act and the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act. The Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority lists the following as examples of expressions that may, depending on the context and duration, be regarded as harassment: Being reprimanded in earshot of others, being ignored, being ridiculed, the withholding of necessary information, condemnation no matter what you do, blaming and shaming, hurtful joking and teasing. Many institutions have whistleblowing schemes and «speak up» systems that make it easy for people to report bullying and harassment. These schemes are important. However, they can also be abused to try to silence legitimate expressions that some people find controversial or offensive.

6.5.2 Culture of conformity

Academic institutions, like society at large, are very aware of and pay close attention to the need for diversity and equality. Diversity in this context is often linked to the bases for discrimination laid down in the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act.61

A kind of diversity that receives less attention, but that is also important to safeguard academic freedom of expression is diversity of opinion. The pursuit of truth also presupposes the exchange of opinions between different types of views, class backgrounds, values and ideological positions. In the absence of opposing views, «echo chambers» tend to develop, where confirmation bias is amplified, and like-minded people simply continue in the direction they were already heading.

Drivers of conformity can come from within, in the form of norms and pressures within academic communities, through recruitment, «academic families» and echo-chamber effects that also raise the bar for dissent. They can also come from the outside, in the form of guidelines and pressures from public authorities and private clients, the Research Council of Norway and other actors that have an influence on the way research, teaching and dissemination are performed.62 A culture of conformity is not necessarily found only within academia. This kind of culture can also develop in the interaction between academia and the public administration and/or other social actors. This can make it even more difficult to voice divergent opinions.

Diversity of opinion is important for the individual’s continued growth and education, and for truth-seeking research and student communities. As discussed in section 3.2, it is crucial to counter the cognitive biases we are all prone to. An absence of ideological or political conformity is also important for society’s confidence and trust in academia in general and research-based knowledge in particular. Although academic work does not require representativeness or democratic anchoring, major differences between the political composition of the population as a whole and that of academia may easily influence people’s view of the objectivity of research. Academia’s potential to ensure quality and to contribute to increased social mobility in society will also be weakened by a culture of conformity that limits the pool of talent.

Surveys indicate that Norwegian researchers are clearly more left-wing and eco-oriented than the population as a whole.63 This tendency applies to a wide range of disciplines and fields, but is most evident in the humanities and social sciences. The political parties the Red Party (R), the Socialist Left Party (SV) and the Green Party (MDG) are overrepresented, while the Progress Party (FrP) and also the Conservative Party (H) are underrepresented.64

Researchers are less critical of immigration, more concerned with environmental protection than economic growth, more positive about state governance and public consumption, and more concerned with equality than the population as a whole.65

There is no easy solution for the challenges ensuing from conformity culture. However, awareness of the issue and conscious efforts to ensure greater latitude of expression and diversity of opinion are crucial to counteract this kind of culture. Thinking related to the importance of diversity should be based on a broad concept of diversity, where diversity of opinion and ideological diversity are also included.

Attempts to welcome opposing voices and discourage conformity can sometimes tip over into another challenge. One example of this is inviting individuals or groups with extreme views to voice their opinions, primarily to avoid being accused of conformity. This may result in these kinds of views receiving a disproportionate amount of attention in the debate in view of the differences in the knowledge base on which the two positions rest. There is no standard formula to determine when more voices and greater balance are important, and when false balance actually serves to undermine, rather than contribute, to the search for truth. However, attention must be paid to both issues to be able to make good assessments in specific situations where this question arises.

6.5.3 Cancel culture, deplatforming, marginalisation

Cancel culture, deplatforming and ostracising are all concepts used to describe the process whereby academics with «divergent» opinions are rejected by the academic community and are prevented from participating in the public debate. Examples include not being invited to seminars or projects in fields where their research is relevant, invitations to debates or teaching being withdrawn as a result of something they have said or published, boycotting of certain teachers or teaching, and attempts to get sources of funding or employers to intervene in their research or teaching. The reasoning behind such attempts to silence these voices is that the people who want them gone find the views so outdated, dangerous, hateful etc. that they believe they have no place in the public sphere. In this respect, they want to interfere with the freedom of information of their colleagues and fellow citizens by curating what they are permitted to hear.

Cancel culture can take the form of organised campaigns of varying degrees, where academics are denounced as fascists, communists, haters, etc., or by illegal acts such as threats and harassment (see section 6.5.5). It can come from outside academia, or from within – from colleagues, administrative staff or students – and can target both staff and students.

The terms «cancel culture» and «deplatforming» describe real phenomena that exist in society today. However, because they are used in very varying ways, even the terms themselves are controversial and have become politicised. The opposing fronts can be roughly outlined as follows: Individuals and groups who feel their views are never heard or heeded, who are not invited because their views are uninteresting or they are bullies, or who otherwise experience opposition to what they stand for as unreasonable see cancel culture everywhere. Individuals and groups who think the public sphere is just fine without voices or views they themselves believe to be overrepresented, hateful or dangerous consider the claims of cancellation to be exaggerated or that cancel culture does not exist.

Cancel culture is characterised by a distorted reading of the positions or views with which one disagrees. Expressions are taken out of context and presented in ways that make them appear to have a different – and stronger or worse – meaning than they originally had. Historical contexts also become irrelevant, if what is regarded as the morally superior principle is deemed to be important enough. This may lead to demands to remove historical monuments or erase facts that are no longer considered appropriate in a more equal, fairer era. For example, in 2021, a municipal district committee in Oslo urged the Natural History Museum to remove a plaque on a bench commemorating Carl von Linné in the Botanical Gardens.66

This phenomenon has received considerable attention in academia in the USA, but we have also seen signs of it here in Norway, including in the debate on the proportion of foreign researchers in Norwegian academia, discussions within gender research, and the debate on climate change. Cancellations and campaigns to marginalise voices are unpleasant for the academics they affect. They also have obvious chilling potential for others engaged in research, teaching or dissemination on topics where these kinds of campaigns are likely to be used. In the USA and countries where academics’ employment protection is weaker, and where projects are more susceptible to pressure from their sources of funding, these kinds of campaigns can have major consequences for individual researchers and research fields. While these vulnerabilities are less pronounced in Norwegian academia, we nevertheless need to be aware of the challenges here as well.

In several places, students have protested against controversial speakers or against lecturers who the students believe have crossed a line for what it is acceptable to say in a lecture theatre. Students have also been behind a number of controversial cases in Norway, such as the case at the University of Bergen where a student lodged a complaint about a lecturer who made a joke about Germans. Students are of course part of the academic community and have both general freedom of expression and academic freedom of expression. Students in Norway also have a statutory right to be heard in all questions concerning students at educational institutions, and the institutions have a duty to provide conditions that facilitate this (section 4-1 of the Universities and University Colleges Act). The right to academic freedom and freedom of expression may affect the students’ right to be heard. The fact that students want to exert an influence on the content of their education must be regarded as both legitimate and desirable, as long as it is done using arguments or instruments that enable continued genuine exchange of ideas and debate.

On a highly simplified political–ideological left-to-right scale, cancel culture is often portrayed as a left-wing phenomenon. One frequently cited example is a group of students’ demand for «decolonisation» of the curriculum at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts in 2020.67 However, demands that certain methods or views should be dropped can both originate from and affect research and academic expressions along every part of this scale. Examples of «right-wing» cancellations are conservative school boards in parts of the USA that have prohibited teaching on critical racial theory and gender identity. In 2022, the «Waste Ombudsman» (a satirical Facebook profile «Sløsriombudsman» that «investigates how bureaucrats and politicians wasted your tax money») issued an open appeal to the University of Oslo, OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University and the state proclaiming that a PhD candidate he interpreted as rehabilitating racial biology in his doctoral work ought not to have been granted funding.68

Textbox 6.5

As a university college professor, I have a responsibility to take part in the public debate. My main goal over the years has been to share my knowledge with a broader audience in the debates in society.

Professor of philosophy Einar Øverenget in a portrait interview in the Norwegian daily newspaper Aftenposten, published on 8 January 2022.

Source politikere-og-presse-har-sviktet-i-pandemien-mener-filosof-einar-oever

Cancel culture runs the risk of creating a situation where academic opinions are not voiced in the public domain and/or are dismissed by a massive academic majority who believe that they, and only they, are the stewards of the truth. In these kinds of cases, there is also a tendency for the vast majority to attack the «player» (i.e. the researcher, through ridicule, intimidation, etc.) and not the «ball» (i.e. the idea propounded), which ought to be met with relevant, objective counter-arguments. No matter how common cancel culture is, fear of it can have a significant chilling effect on academics’ eagerness to research, teach and disseminate freely.

The negative aspects of cancel culture should nevertheless not be exaggerated. If panels or teaching are organised in ways that upgrade peripheral or less well-founded positions, this may lead to false balance, as discussed in sections 6.2.5 and 6.5.2.

Criticism of plaques on benches, curricula and doctoral projects for a variety of different reasons is perfectly legitimate and can even constitute important use of both general freedom of expression and academic freedom of expression. What distinguishes the methods used by cancel culture from the ordinary use of freedom of expression to disagree with another’s opinion is their goal: When the goal of opposition is the continued free exchange of dissenting opinions and ideas from multiples sides, it can help ensure, not impede, everyone’s right to freedom of expression and to seek the truth. When the goal is to exclude certain views from the public sphere or teaching, because they are regarded as undesirable, stupid, dangerous or inappropriate in some other manner, this kind of opposition will prevent the free exchange of opinions and ideas that is a prerequisite for the pursuit of truth.

6.5.4 Populism, politicisation and misinformation

The climate of free speech is influenced by the fact that political discussion – and not just that part of the public debate that takes place on social media – is increasingly dominated by populist trends and perceived polarisation. The developments do not necessarily correspond to people’s actual perceptions.69 Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the arena of expression, and consequently academic freedom of expression, is under pressure. Populism exists at both ends of the political spectrum, albeit with very different motives. It has also gained something of a centrist–populist superstructure in political terms, in that the central parties appear to be more concerned with continuously creating policies that appeal to «ordinary people» than designing more predictable, long-term policies rooted in ideologies. One aspect of populism, no matter where it comes from, is an us-and-them portrayal of the «people» and the «elite». This vague, often opportunistically defined «elite» encompasses traditional authorities – not only the state, but also «out of touch» knowledge-producing communities such as academia.

The OsloMet report identifies four manifestations of populist trends that can affect academic freedom of expression:70

  • populist currents can dominate or promote a negative and aggressive attitude towards researchers and academia

  • populist parties can challenge academic freedom from positions of power in the political system

  • populism can pose an indirect threat to academic freedom by challenging the time-honoured understandings of liberal democracy that form the foundation of science’s social contract and relative autonomy in Western countries

  • that important decision-making processes in society are depoliticised and delegated to more or less closed networks of experts and bureaucrats.

It is difficult for academia to do much about several of these forms of influence. However, it is important to be aware that they exist, how they work and what increased demands this places on academics, not least when they are acting as the public face of academia through dissemination activities.

One aspect of this is dissemination into «hostile» public spheres that for various reasons distrust knowledge and science, and which equate scientifically quality-assured information with politicised, and often erroneous «knowledge».

This kind of dissemination places particular demands on the academics’ ability to remain composed and their understanding of which forms of dissemination will have a trust-building and enlightening effect, and which might backfire and undermine confidence in scientifically quality-assured knowledge.

First, this presupposes that academics must comply with the fundamental rules of fair argumentation – even if the parties they are arguing against do not. The more academics who fail to do this when communicating and discussing in public, the more likely it is that people outside academia will become sceptical to science as a project and research results as a source of knowledge.

In addition, they must communicate in a way that will get people to remain more open to new knowledge, as opposed to simply seeking confirmation of what they already believe. Prejudice cannot be cured by knowledge alone. Dissemination of knowledge into biased or prejudiced public spheres requires insight and training. We describe some of the training needs this corresponds to in section 7.4.3.

6.5.5 Harassment and threats

An array of developments has resulted in the climate of debate in society generally having become harsher. There are currently «battles» in many public spheres, including edited channels, about which views should be allowed. Nevertheless, it is primarily since unedited media and platforms started to form central parts of our common public spheres that the impression of a harsh climate of debate has taken root. It is we humans, with our weaknesses and cognitive biases that are the cause of this development, jollied along by algorithms that reward emotion-driven and emotion-generating content over considered, nuanced, factual and truth-seeking content.

This kind of intimidation can range from ridicule and insults to aggravated threats. Some of it is illegal – such as aggravated threats, stalking and aggravated harassment, hate speech, incitement to a criminal act, violation of the right to a private life and defamation. These expressions may be a matter for the police or the courts. However, most expressions that might be called «harassment and threats» in everyday speech are not unlawful, regardless of unsettling they might be. You cannot seek help from the police against them; instead they must be dealt with in other ways.

Even if the intimidation a person is exposed to is within the law, it can be very unpleasant. If it is shared widely or more people join in, the opposition can feel massive and overwhelming – there is nothing you can do about it. While this phenomenon might be expected for people who voice controversial opinions, it can also affect people who only participate in the public sphere with legitimate, important and uncontroversial views. Moreover, in many cases, the unpleasant comments come from the person’s colleagues and peers.71 This naturally dampens people’s eagerness and willingness to take positions publicly and even participate in any kind of debate whatsoever. For politicians, this problem is so intrusive that the security services and the police regard it as a threat against democracy.72 For academics, it is also a threat to our common search for truth.

One aspect of this challenge is that it can also be misused to silence legitimate and important opinions: By defining fact-based and legitimate views, for example on gender or immigration as «hate speech» or phobias, academics who do research on or convey divergent views can be marginalised and excluded from debates.

What to do about what actual intimidation and threats is a highly topical question at the moment.73 It is being discussed on many levels, ranging from the political regulatory authorities at the supranational and national level, via the Freedom of Expression Commission, to the parties, communities and citizens who experience harassment. We identify some measures that academic institutions and communities can use to safeguard academic freedom of expression in the face of intimidation and threats in section 7.4.3.

6.5.6 Summary: Self-censorship

Most of the challenges we have described in this chapter do not bear the hallmarks of censorship. It is not a person in a position of power refusing to let others impart or receive information about whatever they want. They are not linked to problems with freedom of expression per se, but with the arena of expression. In varying ways, they have a dampening effect on what academics want to share. In this way, they contribute to the most effective form of censorship: self-censorship.

Self-censorship may be due to something as simple as dissemination not being worth the time and effort it will take. Time is a scarcity. And when the only thing that really counts when trying to get ahead in academia is scholarly publication and teaching, there is no reason for academics to spend their precious time on anything else. Why disseminate if it will slow your career trajectory?

Self-censorship may also be caused by various forms of opposition, making it dangerous, unpleasant or burdensome to exercise one’s academic freedom of expression. Opposition can be regarded as a scale running from unlawful acts, creating a fear that is clearly unacceptable (for example, threats) to mild unpleasantness that can be chalked up to «the inherent discomfort of life» (for example, harsh but fair public criticism).

There is major variation in terms of the challenges the individual considers to be so unpleasant that they self-censor and do not engage in dissemination. Academics, like other people, have different personal limits. It is often very challenging and uncomfortable to stand for a view that goes against what everyone else in a group thinks. This may be even more uncomfortable for academics who depend on acceptance and respect within their academic communities. At the same time, this particular discomfort is a prerequisite for conducting academic activities at all, and a key task for academic communities must be to cultivate and reward debate: Science can only be developed by individuals being able and willing to challenge established ways of thinking and supposed truths. And an enlightened society and knowledge-based public spheres require that someone – and preferably many people – disseminate knowledge out from the institutions and participate in discussions outside academia. This means that academics must be aware of and control their natural instinct to self-censor, and they must accept and tolerate a certain level of discomfort and still continue to engage in dissemination activities.



Secretary-General’s report on Our Common Agenda


However, several of them are supported by the analyses in chapters 3–7 of the report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?] and the findings presented in Mangset, M, Midtbøen, A.H. and Thorbjørnsrud, K (eds.) 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]. (2022), chapters 7–9.


See chapter 4.


Opinion’s UNG2022 survey of young people, discussed, for example, here:


The Norwegian Intelligence Service: Fokus 2022 Etterretningstjenestens vurdering av aktuelle sikkerhetsutfordringer [Focus 2022 The Norwegian Intelligence Service’s assessment of current security challenges]. Report from January 2022


How China’s Long Reach of Repression Undermines Academic Freedom at Australia’s Universities | HRW:


Wikforss, Åsa: Alternativa fakta: om kunskapen och dess fiender [Alternative facts: on knowledge and its enemies]. Fri Tanke 2017


The Swedish Crime Victim Authority: Näthat och demokratiskt deltagande – en kunskapsöversikt [Online hate and democratic participation – an overview of knowledge]. 2021


White paper Report no. 4 to the Storting (2018–2019) Langtidsplan for forskning og høyere utdanning 2019–2028 [Long-term plan for research and higher education 2019–2028].


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. chap. 7


Ibid. chap. 8


Official Norwegian Report (NOU) 2020: 3, section 15.3.4


Aftenposten: Varsler oppgjør med «mørke motkrefter» [Announcing a showdown with «dark counter-forces»].


See Eriksen and Holmøyvik, Høyesteretts jernbanebetenkning: en statsrettslig avsporing [The Supreme Court’s legal opinion on the railways: a derailment of constitutional law], Lov og Rett 2022/1 p. 28, section 1.2.


«Propaganda» [Propaganda], Klassekampen 9 February 2022. The researcher published a well-founded response, see «Merkelig om propaganda fra Braanen» [«Strange views on propaganda from Braanen», Klassekampen 11 February 2022. Bjørgulv Braanen subsequently apologised unreservedly for his editorial (see «Ja, jeg tok feil» [«Yes, I was wrong»], Klassekampen 1 March 2022. Detailed apologies from the press are rare, but all the more effective when they are forthcoming. They can help build trust between academia and the media, which is essential for them to be able to complement each other in their civic mission to seek the truth.


See also chapter 4 of the report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


See section 6.5.1


In this case, the Norwegian Ethical Code of Practice for the Press, 2.3 «Be open on matters that could be relevant for how the public perceive the journalistic content.»


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)


See also Kierulf, …En åpen og opplyst offentlig samtale [An open and enlightened public discourse] (2017), p. 48.


See also section 3.1.2


See, for example, Guidelines for Research Ethics in the social sciences and the humanities, norm 50, second paragraph, fourth and fifth sentences.


See, for example, the article «Ut mot «jussifisering» av etikken» [Speaking out against the «codification» of ethics] (


The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


Vidar Enebakk, Head of Secretariat at the Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees (FEK), in the article «Akademisk frihet krever aktivt lederskap» [Academic freedom requires active leadership]


Act no. 23 of 28 April 2017 concerning the organisation of work on ethics and integrity in research (the Research Ethics Act)


Act no. 44 of 20 June 2008 on medical and health research (the Health Research Act)


Act no. 38 of 15 June 2018 relating to the processing of personal data (the Personal Data Act)


Vurderer endringer i loven – slik vil de legge bedre tilrette for forskning på pandemien [Considering changes to the law – improving the parameters for research on the pandemic] (


Proposition no. 158 to the Storting (2020–2021) (Bill):


Proposition no. 56 to the Storting (2017–2018) (Bill and Resolution):


Democracy Reports: In their 2021 annual report, researchers at the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute in Gothenburg concluded that, for the first time since 2001, more than half of all the world’s countries now have an autocratic style of government. This conclusion is based on a single measure of democracy produced using V-Dem data.


Summarised from the 10th anniversary conference for Scholars at Risk, University of Oslo, 21 September 2021.


Norske myndigheter stopper allerede mange internasjonale prosjekter. Hva når de nå får tusenvis av flere søknader? [The Norwegian authorities are already stopping many international projects. What will happen when they receive thousands more applications?] (


The publicly available threat and risk assessments produced by the Norwegian Intelligence Service, the Norwegian Police Security Service and the Norwegian National Security Authority indicate that academia, companies and research are particularly vulnerable; cf. Focus – the Norwegian Armed Forces (, the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST)’s National Threat Assessment for 2022 (, and the Norwegian National Security Authority (NSM)’s report (


« … sikkerhet vil kunne veie tyngre enn akademisk frihet» [«… national security may well outweigh academic freedom»] (


Slår alarm om trusselen fra Kina og Russland [Sounding the alarm about the threat from China and Russia]. (


Legger ned omstridt Kina-samarbeid i Bergen [Discontinuing controversial China collaboration in Bergen] (


Kritisk til senter ved Universitetet i Oslo: – Et brohode for kinesisk propaganda [Critical of the Centre at the University of Oslo: «A bridgehead for Chinese propaganda»] (


Slår alarm om trusselen fra Kina og Russland [Sounding the alarm about the threat from China and Russia]. (


Panorama. The Norwegian government’s strategy for cooperation on research and higher education with Brazil, Canada, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea and the USA (2021–2027),


For example, the University of Bergen’s Guide in connection with collaboration with China and the University of Oslo’s online resources on China aimed at its own students and employees


European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Tackling R&I foreign interference 2022


The Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET): Vurdering af spionagetruslen mod Danmark [Assessment of the espionage threat to Denmark]. December 2021.


The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


See also section 5.2


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)


Ibid. p. 12–13


I. Reymert «Controlling the Future of Academe: Academic and Managerial Logics in Professorial Recruitment», PhD thesis 2021.


Time Use Survey 2021: Longer working weeks, less time for research and development work. Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU)


Most international universities in the world 2022


Tellmann, S.m. et al.: Karriere og arbeidsvilkår i norsk akademia. Resultater fra en survey blant vitenskapelig ansatte [Career and working conditions in Norwegian academia. Results from a survey among academic staff]. Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) report 2019:2


Director of Institute: Lever godt med bare faste stillinger [Doing well with only permanent positions] (


Young Academy of Norway (AYF) (2018). Unge forskere i Norge. Karriereveier og ambisjoner [Young researchers in Norway. Career paths and ambitions].


Reymert, I: «Controlling the Future of Academe: Academic and Managerial Logics in Professorial Recruitment», PhD thesis 2021.


See the discussion in section 6.5.2 and in 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., chapter 9


Aftenposten: Opprop: i frykter at offentligheten går glipp av viktige bøker [A call to arms: We fear that the public is missing out on important books].


The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


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), p. 9.


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), p. 18


Pursuant to section 6 of the Equality and Anti-Discrimination Act, discrimination on the basis of «gender, pregnancy, leave in connection with childbirth or adoption, care responsibilities, ethnicity, religion, belief, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age or combinations of these factors is prohibited. ‘Ethnicity’ includes national origin, descent, skin colour and language.»


The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


In the Norwegian Association of Researchers (FF)’s 2017 survey among its members, more than 56 per cent stated that they would vote for the Red Party (R), the Socialist Left Party (SV) or the Labour Party (Ap), compared with just under 36 per cent in the general population. A recent survey identified the same tendency: «While a majority of the population voted for one of the five central or right-wing parties – the Centre Party (Sp), the Christian Democratic Party (KrF), the Liberal Party (V), the Conservative Party (H), the Progress Party (FrP) – in 2017, this proportion was less than a fifth among social scientists and academics in the humanities». See Mangset, Midtbøen, Thorbjørnsrud, Ytringsfrihet i en ny offentlighet [Freedom of expression in a new public sphere] (2022) p. 139 f.


The Conservative Party is better represented in medicine and agriculture, aquaculture and veterinary science.


Mangset, Midtbøen, Thorbjørnsrud, Ytringsfrihet i en ny offentlighet [Freedom of expression in a new public sphere] (2022) p. 139 f.


Minutes from a meeting of Gamle Oslo municipal district committee, meeting of 17 September 2020, item 100/2020.


Aftenposten: KHiO-studenter krever «avkolonisering» av pensum [KHiO students demand «decolonisation» of the curriculum]. e8Agdg/khio-studenter-krever-avkolonisering-av-pensum


Nettavisen: Ikke gjør rasebiologi greit igjen [Don’t make racial biology OK again]. norsk-debatt/ikke-gjor-rasebiologi-greit-igjen/o/ 5-95-368040


NRKbeta: Blir Norge mer polarisert? [Is Norway becoming more polarised?]


The report Et ytringsklima under press? [A climate of expression under pressure?]


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), p. 18


The Police Threat Assessment 2021, Norway. and the Norwegian Police Intelligence Service’s Threat Assessment 2021 – The threat to dignitaries.


See, for example, the UN Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech; the overview page on the Norwegian government’s strategy against hate speech; the Council of Europe’s No to Hate Speech campaign; and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung’s overview of European strategies

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