Raising the impact of Fram Centre research


In September 2018, the Ministry of Climate and Environment and the Research Council of Norway initiated an evaluation of the Fram Centre. A nine-member evaluation committee of international experts from various disciplines was tasked with assessing how effectively the Centre produces and disseminates knowledge to support the management of natural and cultural resources in the High North.

By Janet Jolmén

Their report, presented in May 2019, finds that the Fram Centre is producing high quality, relevant research. Fram Centre researchers publish a multitude of articles each year, frequently in highly regarded international journals. This knowledge informs policymaking and resource management at both national and international levels. Closer to home, however, the Fram Centre’s communication with the community and stakeholders is described as one-sided.

The Fram Centre Flagship programmes have ambitious plans for outreach and dissemination, and some of the articles in this issue of Fram Forum describe innovative communication strategies (such as using culture for scientific outreach). Nonetheless, the evaluation’s criticism appears valid: the researchers generally present their results after the work is completed, without necessarily engaging the public in dialogue.

“An interesting finding was that quite often outreach was seen as the equivalent of impact, i.e. if you had published and disseminated the research results you had also created an impact. The committee sees this as an oversimplification.”

A lack of citizen involvement in determining the Centre’s research priorities is a recurring theme in the evaluation. Another is that input from social scientists did not come early enough in the process.

“Social science is not […] sufficiently included in the shaping of programmes and design of research questions.”

Projects do not become truly interdisciplinary simply because both social and natural scientists are included in the research teams. There are obstacles to overcome. Social and natural sciences do not ask the same types of questions; they use different vocabularies and apply different research methods. These two disparate research cultures appear to be struggling to find ways to work together fruitfully. Perhaps it would help if each discipline acknowledged the other’s strengths.

New knowledge and new technologies are often developed without stakeholder involvement. But scientific conclusions always involve uncertainties, and innovations pose unknown risks. How does society understand uncertainty and risks? How might society react to and handle these unknowns?

Let’s take an example. Climate change is a complex issue, teeming with uncertainties and risks. Dealing with its consequences will require major changes in society – how we produce our food, where we live, how we get from one place to another, how we construct our homes and keep them warm (or cool). Such far-reaching changes cannot be achieved without broad societal engagement.

This is one context where the unique strengths of the social sciences can be brought to bear. Social scientists can assess the socioeconomic costs of climate-induced changes, elucidate the value of ecosystem services, and provide insight into people’s attitudes toward potential problems and proposed solutions. If the social sciences are fully integrated into project planning and execution, if communities are engaged in setting research priorities, if citizens more readily embrace research outcomes and act on recommendations, then the Fram Centre’s research can truly create impact.