My Time in Oslo: Different science views from the U.S. and Norway

Fred Kavli leads laureates on red carpet. More photos here:

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Oslo, Norway on a journalism fellowship to attend the Kavli Prize (disclosure: the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian Ministry of Research and Education funded my trip, as well as the trips of seven other journalism fellows. We were independently selected by the World Federation of Science Journalists).  We attended the Kavli celebration, related laureate lectures, a forum on global health, and a press conference. We were also able to interact with the laureates in less formal settings. For example, I talked about women in science with Mildred Dresselhaus, who has been working in nanoscience for five decades and was one of four women Kavli laureates, during a rooftop reception, and I sat next to Pluto Killer Mike Brown one night at dinner, where we mainly talked about books and bed bugs, although Pluto’s demise also came up.

But, what struck me most about the experience wasn’t the science or the conversations, although they were interesting. What I noticed was the stark contrast between Norway and the U.S. when it comes to science. Two contrasts, in particular.

First, in the U.S., we have no such celebrations of science, with million dollar prizes, red carpet events and performances by nationally acclaimed singers and dancers (let me know if I’m missing something). Not everyone may agree that scientists need to be celebrated with such fanfare; I’d argue they deserve the attention more than the television and movie stars we throw similar parties for in the U.S. Glitz aside, the prize money and honors serve a nice role by rewarding outstanding work in basic science.

The second contrast hit me during the forum on global health, when Norway’s Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, said a few introductory words. Mr. Stoltenberg’s background is in economics and he’s served on several science-related posts in the Norwegian government for the past couple of decades. Right now, his government is involved in big maternal health initiatives, and 0ne of his projects as a co-chair for the United Nation’s Commission on Life-saving Commodities is to find overlooked healthcare supplies for women and children. You can read his speech here, although according to my audio recording of it, he went off script at times. 

Norway’s progressive attitude toward science is nothing new. But, compare Mr. Stoltenberg’s approach to the current era in the U.S., where elected officials don’t know the biology behind pregnancies due to rape, or denigrate basic science research because they don’t take the time to understand its potential benefits. Of course, not all American politicians are so anti-science. But, it’d be nice if none of them were.

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