Static over statistics sets off a storm

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Heated conflicts are currently swirling in and around an unlikely target: Norway’s state statistics bureau SSB. Pending transfers of several of its top researchers, who track Norway’s development year after year, have led to alleged harassment and even threats against SSB’s director responsible, all because of a reorganization aimed at adapting to the digital age but also, some suggest, differing views on immigration and other research subjects.

Christine Meyer has emerged as an embattled boss at SSB, forced to defend what she claims is a reorganization aimed at modernizing and digitalizing the agency that one researcher claims “writes Norway’s history.” PHOTO: SSB

Criticism and the public debate around SSB (Statistics Norway) has turned labour and business organizations into unusual allies, and become so heated that SSB Director Christine Meyer was called into a meeting with Finance Minister Siv Jensen on Monday. When the meeting was over, issues were said to be so “complex” that Meyer and Jensen will have another meeting next week.

“We see that there are many questions around (SSB’s) reorganization,” Meyer told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) when leaving the ministry after NRK had reported she’d been “called in on the carpet” to answer her critics.

“We have therefore agreed that we will meet again in a week,” Meyer continued. “Then we will look more closely at steps we can take to calm down the situation, ensure confidence in SSB and in what we deliver to the Parliament, the ministries and the various parties in the Norwegian workforce.”

Meyer thus indicated that some changes may be made in her controversial plan to reorganize SSB’s research group and cut its staffing from 75 to around 50. “I have tried to be constructive and tried to put some proposals on the table of the finance minister,” she told NRK,  “but we’re not finished, and that’s because the situation is so complex that we need a bit more time to think through how we’ll do this, and what the right measures are.”

Meyer told newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend that opposition to her reorganization plans for SSB has led to threats against her that were so serious she felt compelled to report them to police. She claimed she was “surprised” by the anger that’s been vented at her over what she calls “a process we’d been working on for a long time. Maybe I’m naive, but I thought we’d moved into a new phase,” after criticism was directed at SSB earlier this year as well. Many of the researchers themselves feel their wings are being clipped.

Meyer claimed she was merely “implementing” decisions already made when SSB’s researchers were told last week that many of them would be transferred out of SSB’s designated research division and into its statistics division. Those transferred consider it a demotion, while those remaining in the research division will have to prove their worth by submitting their research to international publications. It appears to be an example of the “publish or perish” criteria used by many universities: Research must be good enough that each researcher secures publication in a top international journal at least once every five years.

Meyer has crossed swords with senior researcher Erling Holmøy, who is fighting his pending transfer out of SSB’s research division. Holmøy, best known for controversially studying what immigration costs Norwegian society, will still have a job at SSB, but feels he’s being unfairly demoted. PHOTO: SSB

The new criteria has raised widespread objections as has the transfer of one researcher in particular: Erling Holmøy. He’s best known for studying the economic consequences of immigration, and detailing what it costs Norway to take in immigrants. Meyer, who has publicly supported immigration in the past, has questioned the value of Holmøy’s so-called “immigration account” (he dislikes the term). “I have said that if SSB hadn’t already compiled an immigration account, I would have questioned whether it was correct,” Meyer told Aftenposten. “But now we have it and I can live with it. What’s important now is that it be the best possible.”

Holmøy was stunned by his pending transfer, told various media outlets that he felt he’d “been fired” and readily admitted he was hurt and angry. “I think what’s happening is deeply unfair,” he told newspaper Aftenposten on Saturday. He thinks he has worked hard in an area (immigration) that’s a priority for the government and, not least, Finance Minister Jensen’s conservative Progress Party.

He and other researchers also feel they have little chance of getting their research published internationally because “Norway is a small country. Few foreign researchers are interested in or can evaluate much on the Norwegian macroeconomy.” He disputes the publishing criteria that Meyer, who’s on leave as a professor at the Norwegian business school NHH, has chosen as a means of quality assurance. Holmøy and many of his colleagues have also spent their careers making international research techniques and knowledge relevant for Norway. They think it’s unlikely international researchers would adapt Norwegian techniques to their work.

For a look at some of the statistical information SSB produces about Norway, click here (external link).

Holmøy, who calls SSB “Fact Central” for Norway, also is most interested in Norwegian social issues and research that can make social debate on Norwegian issues better informed. He’s won lots of support from chief economists at both employers’ organization NHO and Norway’s largest trade union confederaton LO, along with several top politicians. Trond Giske of the Labour Party is worried Meyer’s reorganization will weaken SSB. Liv Signe Navarsete, a former government minister and now Member of Parliament for the Center Party questioned on Monday whether Meyer and SSB’s leadership were “pressing out researchers who think differently” than they do.

Other SSB researchers are also speaking up, including Kristine Grimsrud who specializes in energy and environmental economics. She was told her research lacked empirical analysis. Torbjørn Eika, who recently left SSB to become chief economist at Norway’s state organization representing municipalities, KS, said he was “shocked” that Holmøy and several others were being “kicked out” of the research division. “I view him as one of the best and most relevant economists today,” Eika, who spent 31 years at SSB, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday.

Meeting with Jensen ‘positive and natural’
It was all the criticism, also from top names such as NHO’s chief economist Øystein Dørum and LO’s chief economist Roger Bjørnstad, that prompted Finance Minister Jensen to ask Meyer to explain herself. “I think that’s positive and natural,” Meyer told Aftenposten. She insists she’s only trying to “modernize and digitalize” SSB, and cut costs in the face of shrinking state budgets. After a highly turbulent week, another one looms until the next meeting with Jensen.

“I of course think this is tough, but I’m more worried about my employees,” Meyer told Aftenposten. She said she had nothing to do with deciding which researchers would be reassigned, and that SSB’s reorganization is not connected in any way to the transferred researchers’ themes of study. Meyer also noted that SSB’s professional panel initially suggested keeping only 25 researchers in the division. She thought that would be too few.

SSB’s future organization and work may ultimately be decided by Jensen, who told DN that she had “registered” the concerns about the changes being made at SSB. “As the top leader for the agency, I am most concerned that SSB continue to deliver its important contribution,” Jensen said.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund