University launches major research initiative on democracy
The University of Oslo has established a new interdisciplinary initiative on democracy that aims to be an “active and relevant contributor” to the fulfilment of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations.
The new programme will explore five research tracks: democracy as a form of governance and the institutions of democracy; citizens, diversity and inequality; the role and function of knowledge; democracy and crisis management; and democracy in everyday life.
The initiative is a continuation of the extensive multidisciplinary collaborative research programme known as UiO:Nordic 2015-22, which quickly became the largest established programme of research on the Nordic region in the world.
In the Spring of 2021, UiO:Nordic involved 288 scientists in 11 countries, with 177 based in Oslo where 31 different research groups were represented. The initiative generated more than NOK100 million (US$10 million) in external funding and had a basic investment from the university of NOK80 million for the period 2015-22 and generated more than 1,000 scientific publications.
UiO also had a strong presence in the six-Nordic university consortium ReNEW (Reimagining Norden in an Evolving World) funded by joint Nordic research funding organisation NORDFORSK and coordinated by the University of Helsinki.
Complex societal challenges
Professor of English literature Tore Rem, the director of UiO:Nordic, is now set to become the research director for UiO:Democracy.
Rem described the initiative as “a cross-scientific stake anchored in the humanities and the social sciences but open towards the natural sciences and other academic fields.
“So complex societal challenges like growth of autocracy and other threats against democracy we now see are forcing us to find each other in cross-scientific constellations.”
According to the programme proposal prepared for a University of Oslo Senate meeting on 17 June 2022, UiO:Democracy aims, not only to push the research front forward, but to “contribute towards strengthening and re-creating democratic culture and praxis”.
UiO:Democracy is connected to another strategic priority for 2030: sustainability in terms of which democracy and its institutions are seen as being critical to realising the UN SDGs and making human societies more sustainable.
Of particular relevance to the initiative is SDG Goal 16: to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.
Sub-goal 16.3 specifically relates to promotion of the rule of law, while 16.5 calls for a reduction in corruption and bribery. Sub-goal 16.6 refers to the development of “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels, while 16.7 explicitly calls for “responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making”.
In its long-term national research plan, UiO has identified democracy and inequality as focus areas. Democracy is also a clear priority in the platform of the new European University ‘Circle U’, in which UiO is a central partner. The theme of ‘Democracy and inclusion’ has been chosen as one of four gravitational fields in the Oslo Science City project.
In addition, the present university rectorate has expressed a commitment to strive for the continuing development of cross-disciplinary research in existing research initiatives, and “to be present in the important conversations of our time”. Another objective is to have globalisation and digitalisation inform all research projects.
Rem listed potential research questions for the new initiative as follows: fake news, social media, electronic elections, the role of the parliament, mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion and signs of democracy in crisis, the environment and the Ukraine war.
According to the call for applications, grants of NOK2 million to NOK6 million are available for three to five research groups. The research groups must be affiliated with at least two different faculties, in line with the initiative’s interdisciplinary profile.
“Now I am hoping that people from all over the UiO are reporting their interest, from medicine to political science and from informatics to literature science. One of the ambitions with the project is to create a collective ownership of research on democracy,” Rem said in UNIFORUM, the UiO newsletter.
Challenges to democracy
The introduction of the UiO:Democracy initiative has been widely welcomed.
Professor Emeritus William I Brustein, who is acting director at the Center for Global Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, a member of the National Academy for International Education and a member of the Swedish Foundation for International Cooperation in Research and Higher Education (STINT) Advisory Board in Stockholm, told University World News he was “deeply impressed” by the initiative.
“Today, the democratic system of government is confronting its greatest challenge since the interwar period when the world witnessed the rise, as well as success, of fascist and communist movements.
“While the topics to be studied within this initiative are impressive, I do hope that the investigators include comparative and historical research on how formerly democratic nations succumbed to autocratic tendencies, for example, Italy (pre-1922), Germany (pre-1933), Hungary (pre-2010), and so on.
“Historical insights may well assist us to see and address the warning signs of a collapsing democratic polity.
“Finally, I do hope that, out of this significant research initiative, curricula are developed that will be employed in primary and secondary schools – not only in Scandinavia, but worldwide.”
Understanding the fundamentals
Professor Ole Petter Ottersen, who was rector at the University of Oslo from 2009 to 2017 and is now president of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, described the project as “a timely and important initiative” that builds on the hugely successful UiO:Nordic programme.
“Democracy is under threat, and I see it as our responsibility as academics to invest our competence and creativity in exploring the fundamentals of democracy and – not least – in reaching a better understanding of the Nordic model which continues to inspire discussions on democracy in other parts of the world.
“Norway and the other Nordic countries are among the select few that are ranked as “full democracies” in The Economist’s democracy index (the top group consisting of the five Nordic countries plus New Zealand).
“With this comes a responsibility. Research is required to preserve democracy which, in turn, is essential to uphold academic freedom – a prerequisite for societal development.
“Disrespect of the division of power, disregard of facts and knowledge, belief in conspiracy theories, erosion of trust and proliferation of fake news are all trends that challenge democracy and must be fought in an evidence-based manner. I am confident that the new initiative will be hugely helpful in this endeavour,” he said.