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A troubled saga about marine researchers, politicians, and the industry

Per Sandberg, Norwegian Minister of Fisheries:  Researchers should share the ambitions of industry and government.

Per Sandberg, Norwegian Minister of Fisheries:  Researchers should share the ambitions of industry and government.

A heated quarrel between marine researchers and the government over the past months raises doubts about what Norwegian politicians really think about the independence of research.

 

If you want a quiet life, sheltered from the noise from the world outside, you would do wise to steer away from marine science.

There is too much money, political careers, jobs and environmental concerns in the field of fish cultivation to shield anyone entering the field from getting his or hers share of scold, anger, and downright hatred.

Even in quiet, somewhat conflict-averse and thoroughly democratic Norway, few other branches of science is as exposed to the dangerous mix of business and politics as marine research.

This spring an outburst from a fresh minister of fisheries created a verbal war about the responsibilities of research vis a vis the business that research affects.

It all started with a protest from the Norwegian Seafood Association (NSL) against the research that the Institute of Marine Research (HI) had conducted in the river Guddalselva south of Bergen on the west coast of Norway.

The research was aimed at producing new knowledge about the survival and growth of farmed salmon, wild salmon and interbreeds of the two.

 
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The NSL’s doubts about the results were met with an answer from the researchers and their institutions and went on to meetings in the Department of Fisheries.

The industry representatives warned in the meeting about using scientifically weak research report as a basis for regulating sea farming. The Guddalselva project and a system for trawling after sea lice were uses as examples.

The conflict did not reach the front pages however before the minister responsible for the fish industry let out a couple of turbo-charged statements about how he thought the researchers should behave.

The minister in question is Per Sandberg of the right-wing Progress Party (FrP), that holds government with the moderate party (Høyre).

Norwegian press aired doubt about the conservative government understanding of the researchers’ role vis a vis the government, suggesting that Sandberg was “ordering political loyalty” from the Institute of Marine Research. The concern was a result of the following statement from the minister, passed on by the daily newspaper Bergens Tidende:

“The politicians have put down the framework for how this industry shall grow, and HI [the Institute of Marine Research], should share those ambitions”.

Asked how HI should respond if they believe growth is not justifiable, says the Minister: "HI should assume that it is safe, and then they have to create models that make it prudent to achieve the goals."

 Read the full report here (story continues below):

 
No cheering, please

Unsurprisingly, members of the Norwegian research community reacted with a certain degree of bewilderment to Sandberg’s statements.

The Dean of the University of Bergen commented that “It is not the task of the Institute of Marine Research to cheer anything at all”.

Traditionally there is a clear difference between the politicians right to decide which research areas that should be funded and any types of managing or ordering certain results from specific research work.

“The latter leads to bad research”, stated the country’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten, adding that one of the tasks research has in a modern, free society is to deliver premises for those who develop politics. Those premises are then to be weighed up against other concerns when the actual policy decisions are made. There are many examples that other concerns, in the end, influences policy more than research does. The important thing is, still according to the newspaper that this consideration is made not before, but after the research conclusions are at the table.

“Per Sandberg has to explain how he understands the concept of independent research, and he must ensure the Institute of Marine Research that it has the necessary freedom to conduct high-quality research without orders about the direction of the research.”

 

Too strict?

The background for the discussion about the Institute’s research practice is a conflict that for a long time has been polluting the relationship between the Marine Research Institute and the organization for the seafood industry. The NSL accuses the HI of having produced weak research resulting in the implementation of too strict measures concerning the huge problems that the Norwegian salmon farmers have with Sea Lice attaching the fish in the cages.

The research institute’s director Sissel Rogne has named the industry’s critique as slander of her organization and certain researchers. Minster Sandberg on his account has said that he cannot yet decide if there are errors in the research or if it has led to wrong political decisions.

  

Sissel Rogne, head of Norway's Marine Institute.

Sissel Rogne, head of Norway's Marine Institute.

 

The minister’s critical remarks to the Marine Institute’s Lice research are shared by politicians from other parties. Ove Trellevik who represents the moderate party (Høyre) in the Norwegian parliament, support has voiced support for the criticism of the Lice report, saying bluntly that the Marine Institute lacks “good answers” in its lice research. “Research should be verifiable. HI cannot need to be willing to verify its own findings. This is how the results turn out when research is conducted by activists and wild salmon fishermen”.

The broader field of GMO is another obvious source for a toxic mix of heated political debate, business, and science.

Here we find stories about jobs being liquidated once the academic who holds it concludes that the concerned consumer is incorrect in his worries about a certain form of genetically manipulated food. We all know how to what extent a worried consumer can direct the world views of a politician hoping to survive the next election.

Violent stories about GMO and research can also take the opposite direction. Dr. Arpad Pusztai evoked worldwide media attention in August 1998, when he said on British TV that he would not eat genetically engineered food because of the insufficient testing procedures they have undergone.

Pusztai is a world-renowned expert on food safety, who worked at UK's leading food safety research lab, the Rowett institute. His statement obviously threatened to damage the then ongoing multi-million PR campaign of the Biotech industry to create public confidence in GE foods. A few days after his public appearance he was suspended and gagged by the research institute where he worked.

 

Old story

In March this year, BlueFrontierMagazine.com published a story about how Norwegian genetic engineers created a GMO salmon in the mid-eighties, years before AquaBounty started working on their now approved GE-salmon. Several waves of debate about GM research in the Parliament and in the media resulted in this and similar genetic research being functionally forbidden in Norway. The fish tanks were emptied and the fish butchered.

Scientists that took part in the research then, today warn against politically managed research.

- It is very important that we as a society can stop unwanted usage of knowledge. It is a completely another thing, however, to stop the knowledge production itself, as long as it is not directly unethical. In my mind, it is completely idiotic to ban research on genetically modified fish. Instead, we could have patented the fish here in Norway and via this patent controlled how it was used, says Professor Peter Alestrøm.

Back to 2016. A couple of months after Minister Sandberg’s strife with the marine research community, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, the minister for research and Sandberg’s government colleague, launched a new body, a scientific “advisory board” that shall advise about the political usage of research. Not volunteering to admit that the Sanberg vs. science-conflict was the reason for him establishing this new committee, he said that the “Sandberg-case” expresses a trend. “Polls show us that more academics than before think that the integrity of science is threatened. This tells us that this proposal is well-timed”, said Røe Isaksen.

 

Towards a better atmosphere?

Looking back at months of loud discussion about whether Norwegian salmon research lives up to the required quality level or not, it all looks a bit more two-sided.

The majority of sober observers seem to think that the two top politicians Sandberg and Tellevik went a bit too far in the direction of trying to make loyal lackeys of the country’s leading marine researchers.

Others encourage the researchers to be more open to discussion about research results, even when it is ill-founded or put forward by critics who have not really read the research results themselves.

As Petter Aaslestad, the leader of The Norwegian Association of Researchers, says to the independent fish farming news service iLaks:

– All should be allowed to discuss the research results. It is a part of the academic mission that we all can take part in the research result and the following discussion, said Aaslestad.

Research manager Geir Lasse Taranger at HI adds that the institute is dependent on discussions and critique when working out the basis for how the fish farming industry shall operate in the future.

The two politicians have, of course, in hindsight mildly rephrased their criticism giving it a more constructive form, by underlining their right to speak freely in discussions about the future management of an industrial activity that, regardless of its many challenges, often are proclaimed to be one of the economic pillars of Norway’s economy post-petroleum.

Below: The Norwegian Department of Fisheries greets followers on Facebook.

 

 

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