‘We want foreign talent to come to Norway, but then go home’

20 Jun 2019 | News

Gunnar Bovim, rector at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, wants to combat the brain drain from developing countries. They need expertise more than we do, he says

Photo: Thor Nielsen/NTNU Komm.avd.

Norway should not deprive developing countries of their academic talent, says Gunnar Bovim, rector at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).

“We want them to come here, study with us, but we want them to go back home afterwards. We don’t want to brain drain countries which need this talent more than we do.”

In Nepal, for instance, former NTNU students are helping fix turbines that get damaged by sand and dirt in hydroelectric power plants near the Himalayas.

Hydroelectric power is emerging as a backbone of the Nepalese economy, in a country where power shortages are common, said Bovim.

“Our alumni have recreated our hydro lab out there. There’s real potential, because in Nepal you have eight of the highest mountains in the world, a bigger natural resource than Norway, almost untapped.” Bovim said.

Speaking to Science|Business this week during the Big Challenge science festival in Trondheim, where NTNU has its main campus, Bovim said he thinks the Norwegian government should even consider creating incentives for overseas students to return home.

Returning trained students to Nepal fits within a strong Norwegian tradition of spreading knowledge and wealth to the neediest places, says Johan Einar Hustad, director of NTNU’s energy division.

“It’s an obligation for us to export what we know. We have been very fortunate with natural resources here, all our oil and gas, our waterfalls and fisheries,” he said.

These home advantages are no longer being taken for granted. Hardening attitudes around the world to the fossil fuel industry is pushing NTNU leaders to come up with new ways to attract students to its energy-related courses.  

“The number applying for our petroleum studies has gone way down in the last year,” said Hustad. “So in response we’ve been trying to combine new disciplines with old domains. We’re fusing ICT, cybernetics and big data with petroleum. We are trying to develop new fields that young people will want to go into.”

Bovim said all NTNU’s university courses are becoming interdisciplinary. “Every student taught in technology should have a background in humanities,” he said. “New technology development is far too important to be left to technologists alone.”

New energy

A noted contradiction in Norway is that while it sets hugely progressive domestic targets to cut emissions, it is Europe’s biggest exporter of fossil fuels.

The country maintains a meticulous carbon ledger at home: almost all of its electricity comes from hydropower, it has a high carbon tax, is a leader in the switch to electric cars and is pioneering carbon capture and storage undersea and in waste plants and cement factories.

“We probably lead the world in floating wind farm expertise too,” said Hustad. A few years ago, Equinor set up the world’s first such farm in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.

Bovim acknowledges there is growing pressure on Norway to curb the supply of fossil fuels, which accounts for almost 40 per cent of the country’s export earnings, according to the nation’s petroleum directorate.

“We don’t want to keep making new bore holes indefinitely. Anything we do additionally should be at as low a cost as possible, with as low a carbon footprint as possible,” said Bovim.

Norway’s exploitation of oil and gas leaves a smaller carbon footprint than the global average, and helps Europe reduce dependence on coal, which “is the worst energy of all for pollution,” Bovim noted. The country is also divesting its enormous sovereign wealth fund from some fossil fuel holdings.

“There is a growing resistance about going for new oil and gas in the Barents Sea,” Hustad said. “But there’s still a majority in the parliament, and government, who [back] awarding new drilling licences.” Norway is one of a number of countries, including Russia, China and the US, in the race for Arctic oil.

Where Norway can lead is in carbon capture and storage, Hustad says. The world’s first large-scale carbon storage project was developed in 1996 off the Norwegian coast, injecting nearly one million tonnes of CO2 a year into a tomb 800 to 1,100 metres beneath the seabed.

Europe’s progress on carbon capture beyond Norway is stilted, but Hustad sees the concept as the only viable way to address emissions.  

“Even if it’s more expensive to store carbon offshore, you will ultimately face less resistance from the ‘not in my backyard’ people,” he says.

CO2 capture and storage will make a key contribution to the Paris agreement aim of to keeping the rise in the planet’s temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius. “It’s simply impossible to hit the Paris targets without it,” Bovim said.

Lifelong learning

If NTNU has been gently shaking up its offering for undergraduates, bigger reforms of higher education are needed from the government.

In the face of the ageing population, Norway must “crack the code on lifelong learning,” Bovim said. “A growing number of people feel they should get more training. We have to get our hands around this. It’s a European problem.”

The government may have to consider introducing student fees for later-in-life courses, he said. “It has to be paid for in some way – by government, individuals, or by a combination of the two.”  

Meanwhile, the rector says his university will battle to remain the second most successful applicant for EU research funding among Norwegian universities.

“We fall between Oslo and SINTEF (a research institute also based in Trondheim), and that’s exactly where we need to be for a technical university,” Bovim says. “We have restructured our university to be more [in line with] the EU funding system.”

One area in need of improvement is for NTNU to do better in winning sought-after European Research Council (ERC) grants. “We struggle a bit with winning ERC money; we should have many more stipends from [there],” he said. 

However with EU R&D funding, “The main thing may not be the money, but the networks you develop. It is beneficial for us in many more ways than the money,” Bovim said.

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