An American in Bergen

October 6, 2016

Dr. Janice Nigro, Filipodia Editor


A lot of scientists come to the United States for part of their training experience. The reverse, a US scientist in training somewhere else, is a less common find. While leaving the country might seem to be an unconventional career choice for a US scientist, it is unexpectedly more revealing about what might be both positive and negative about the system that already exists in the USA.


It hit me in a big way when I decided to take a six-month sabbatical in Norway from my research position in San Francisco. My motivation was personalI had always wanted to live in a foreign country and to become fluent in a second language-as well as professional — I found my research environment in the USA to be somewhat stifling for both professional and intellectual growth.


Take intellectual risks. For people who have never done it, a sabbatical could seem more like an extended solo holiday. It is in a way, but there were professional risks I was willing to take in Norway simply because the rules that guided my previous life no longer applied. Furthermore, no one really has any expectations of you. If you fail, you can go home. My liberation only became apparent to me when I joked about choosing a project that might not be allowed in the USA, like cloning myself. It was an epiphany of sorts, but it was that moment when I realized that in order to take full advantage of leaving my country, I had to leave my research attitude behind also.


Embrace cultural differences. In practical ways, life in another county is different – the language, the food, and the local customs. A sabbatical is a defined period of time (although mine turned into a little over seven years), so you can call yourself an expat, but really you are an immigrant. When I found myself in the Norwegian Directorate for Immigration waiting for my interviews to be approved for my work visas, I was no different than anyone else. I had to come up with a valid reason to be in Norway.


Inside the lab in Norway though, I could not imagine life would differ much from in my home country. A lab is a lab, and the Norwegian lab was extremely well-off. It was just somewhere else to do what I always did, even down to surrounding myself with foreign scientists. I was wrong about this, in part, because of local politics, but more so because of the differences in cultural attitudes towards work.


Career generally does not take precedence over personal life in Norway. People work hard, but they also know when to stop. Admittedly, it could be frustrating at times that most everyone had disappeared already by 16:00 or that people seemed to be on holiday way before the holiday. But informing your boss about an imminent vacation was a guilt-free experience. To not take your holiday (which is five weeks) is actually illegal in Norway.


Things got done, but it was a real lesson in patience and focus. Something as simple as the availability of reagents could throw you off course for a few weeks. In the USA, reagents easily show up overnight. In Norway, most reagents are imported from another country. Any lapse in restocking them might lead to a significant gap in important experiments.


Your identity is highly associated with your group leader. Scientists in Norway tend to be organized into larger groups run by more established investigators, sort of like a department within a department. The group that you are in is often an important criterion for funding, and such structure does provide protection for new, slowly developing projects (such as my own project on low-grade gliomas). These groups function more like a network of senior scientists so that there is a huge potential to take on bigger projects based on the nature of your immediate work environment.


The problem with this type of organization of scientists is that it remains difficult to separate the work of untenured investigators from established PIs. It might have been easier to get funding if you were in the right group, but only for your own salary and not supplies or students as you were directly competing with your group leader for money. I found myself in the unique position of having money to pay myself (salaries in Norway are high relative to the USA), but no money to actually perform experiments. My project was therefore more vulnerable to the interests and spending habits of the group overall. Publications also easily add up for the group, but not necessarily for the untenured investigator, and the basis for authorship might be more politically motivated in this scenario.


You have something to contribute as a foreigner. The integration of scientists from diverse backgrounds and nationalities often stimulates some of the best work. It can be an ego bruising process; a foreigner can seem like some sort of disruptor who is there just to expose weaknesses and to make people uncomfortable. I like to ask questions for example, which at times, left me feeling as if my Norwegian lab wanted me to go back into the box that I came from. But close to the end of my seven years, I made a proposal that finally made sense to them. The only reason I was able to suggest it, was because I had come from the outside (even outside of Europe) and viewed the nature of their professional relationships differently.


Government influences scientific productivity everywhere. Although I had initially planned to stay only six months, I felt it was important to act as if I was staying forever. This meant developing a long-term strategy, writing grants, and well, really furnishing my apartment. I was reasonably successful, which is why six months turned into over seven years. Funding in Norway, however, was extremely competitive, like everywhere else. Norway is one of the richest countries in the world, and on that basis, could probably create its own model for driving research-like a Howard Hughes Institute for all. Funding did not work this way, and the amount of money relegated to science by the government instead created a competition to generate what I considered a false sense of exclusivity. The percentage of scientists who were awarded funding from the government in 2012 (when I left) was actually lower in Norway (~ 6%) than in the USA which at ~7% was already pretty low. That is not a lot of scientists based on a population of ~ 5 million people.


Labor legislation influenced university employment in an unexpected way in Norway. Whether you were Norwegian or not, maintaining continuity in work contracts in temporary positions at the University of Bergen was a problem. It was a fluke consequence of legislation designed to actually protect the worker. Such issues impressed upon me for the first time how important it is for scientists everywhere to appeal to their governments for funding and for regulations that will facilitate their work.


No escape from impact factor. Some of the professional challenges in Norway, even so close to the Arctic Circle, were no easier to escape than in San Francisco or anywhere else. Impact factor and number of papers were major criteria for determining professional futures. Projects were funded for only three years. Should medical research be forced into a translational rather than a basic research path? Norway also educated a large number of PhDs, but there were no academic jobs for them. These are issues that we all struggle with worldwide, but in Norway, a country that operates in the black, there is perhaps a great opportunity to increase funding for scientific research, not just for training more PhDs, but for employing them for a lifetime.


After some time in Norway, it reached that point, as can happen in any relationship, where it no longer worked for me. I still returned to the USA with some insight into the strengths and weaknesses of conducting science in a different culture, and the level of effort it might take to achieve similar goals. The small size of the scientific community in Norway created unique issues for project design that referees for grants, who were mostly located outside of the country, clearly did not consider. The experience also reinforced the fact that interesting results originate from some of the most unexpected places around the world — anyone anywhere might have solutions to important problems.


I don’t know why I felt so liberated in my thinking and actions in Norway — maybe it was trying to learn Norwegian (I never became completely fluent) or the unusually long days of summer that triggered the more creative parts of my brain. What I do know is that Norway has an opportunity to develop a unique program in basic research, focusing on idea development and alternative positions for senior level scientists.