Managing Peace Researchers: Lene Kristin Borg and Grete Thingelstad in Conversation with Stein Tønnesson

Herding cats. / Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

Lene Kristin Borg and Grete Thingelstad in Conversation with Stein Tønnesson

At a farewell lunch organized for PRIO Director Sverre Lodgaard at the end of his term in 1992, someone said that, under his leadership, PRIO had made a transition from anarchy to dictatorship. The speaker who said this expressed herself in favour of the dictatorship, which according to her had been necessary. Another speaker quoted Mao Zedong for stating that to make an omelette you need to break a few eggs. Some eggs had indeed been broken.

This comment comes from Grete Thingelstad, who served as Administrative Director (kontorsjef) at PRIO during the transformation period from 1989–95.

Lene Kristin Borg, PRIO’s current Administrative Director, adds the following remark:

PRIO’s anarchic past had completely vanished when I arrived in 1998. I came to a well-ordered institute, and it may surprise those who have heard about PRIO’s past but not about its present that after running PRIO for more than twenty years, I have not yet met Johan Galtung.

Grete Thingelstad: I had studied social science at the University of Oslo, and had worked as a research secretary at its Department of Informatics, as well as at the Centre for Industrial Research (now SINTEF), where I was head of administration in one of their departments. So, I had learnt some things about research administration, although I had not studied management. When I saw that there was a vacancy at PRIO, I applied, got the job and started in September 1989. I had had no previous engagement with peace activism or peace research but had begun to study social anthropology.

Lene Kristin Borg: I studied economics and administration for two years at the Economic College, as it was called at the time, in central Oslo. My first job was as an accountant at the Norwegian Refugee Council. I took up that job in 1989, the same year that Grete got the job at PRIO. I stayed with the Refugee Council until 1994, when I discovered a vacancy at CICERO, the Centre for International Climate Research. It was great fun to work there as a controller, under the directorship of Helga Hernes, who later joined PRIO as a Senior Adviser.

In 1997, someone at CICERO alerted me to the fact that the position as Administrative Director at PRIO had been advertised. He said: “You need bigger challenges. You must move onwards and upwards, Lene!” I remain grateful for that tip, which got me to apply to PRIO – although I had really liked it at CICERO. I applied and was invited to an interview with PRIO Director Dan Smith, Deputy Director Hilde Henriksen Waage and Helga Løtuft, who had served as administrative director since Grete left the job.

The result of maternity leave from PRIO. Grete Thingelstad and her son Eirik.

Grete: She was my replacement for two years when I had parental leave.

Lene: I really wanted the job at PRIO as I had gained an interest in international affairs through my previous jobs, with a focus on refugees and climate issues. I had come to know economists and meteorologists, and I liked to work with research.

So, to meet researchers focusing on peace and conflict was something I looked forward to. I had for a short time worked in a purely commercial environment and had found that meaningless. My interest in international affairs was also stimulated by the fact that I had married a guy from Morocco.

Grete: In my case, the interest in international affairs was stimulated by my university studies and several years of activist work for indigenous people. I gave up social anthropology when I got pregnant. At that time, most anthropologists did their fieldwork in foreign countries, preferably on a small isolated island, and that did not fit well with parenthood. I had, however, done some travelling in the USA and Europe before I came to PRIO, so I had an international outlook.

Grete: I was interviewed by Director Sverre Lodgaard and a graduate student, Merete Wilhelmsen – who is now a Norwegian diplomat – and I remember feeling surprised that I would be interviewed by a student. A stronger memory is the joy I felt when I got the offer. I was incredibly happy. I have three children, and I have changed job after each parental leave. As I remember, I began at PRIO when my second leave ended on 1 September 1989.

On my first day at PRIO, I was introduced to all the staff, and I remember meeting a researcher whose name was already familiar to me, since I had seen him on TV, heard him on the radio and read about him in the papers. He was dressed up in the kind of attire that I expected researchers to wear when coming to work: a suit and tie.

I was therefore unprepared for his first words to me: “Please excuse my having dressed up today; I shall be going to a funeral.” This was Nils Petter Gleditsch. I had no idea that PRIO had an informal dress code. For me, it felt natural that a famous researcher would be wearing a suit and tie. I later noticed with some relief that when PRIO invited Oslo’s diplomatic corps to its seminars, most of the researchers dressed up.

I arrived during a transformative period at PRIO, when Sverre Lodgaard had recently begun as director. Many controversial changes had already been introduced under his leadership by my predecessor in the management role, who had only stayed for one year but had enforced some radical reforms. He cleaned up the place, so to speak, and controversially introduced a registration system where employees had to ‘clock in’ with punch cards, logging the time they arrived at work and the time they left, allowing the management to calculate how many hours a person was at work. This caused quite a shock.

Lene: I had been told that my interview would be in English, so I rehearsed various terms in the car while driving down to PRIO in Fuglehauggata 11. Hilde Henriksen Waage asked the toughest questions. Afterwards, I was very disappointed when I found out that I had not got the job. I was in the top two. Then, fortunately, it turned out that the first choice had also applied for another job and had got it, so just before Christmas 1997, Dan Smith called and offered me the job. It was a wonderful Christmas present.

Before I arrived, the accountant at PRIO also left, so Lars Even Andersen, now Deputy Administrative Director, began in that job at the same time as me. We were hired at the same time and became PRIO’s new management team.

No one was there to train us. Dan Smith simply welcomed me and declared: “Here is your office – you can start working now. It’s not always easy to know what you should be doing when you are the boss, but I’m sure it will all work itself out. So just sit down, think a little, walk around to say hello to people, and then you will find out what to do.” This was strange, I thought.

No one was there to train us. Dan Smith simply welcomed me and declared: “Here is your office – you can start working now”

Grete: What you’re saying reminds me of my first day at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), where I took over as Administrative Director in 1997. It was such a shattering experience to receive so little guidance there that I have forgotten my first day at PRIO.

Lene in the early years at PRIO – in Fuglehauggata in 2002.

Lene: I remember walking around without anyone to accompany me, introducing myself to these strange intellectuals. Helga Løtuft, my predecessor, had left a note for me, which was also rather puzzling. It contained some anecdotes and a list of people she called “high maintenance”. There was also a note about dress code, defining what was acceptable. Shorts were not allowed, but neither was it obligatory to wear a suit or jacket to work.

Grete: The prohibition against shorts stemmed from the time before I arrived. At that time, we had many conscientious objectors (COs) among the staff. Some of them dressed very informally, so the management introduced some rules. Moreover, a few months before I arrived, the staff had found a note from the Administrative Director in their pigeonholes one day, notifying them that from that day onward, all male staff were obliged to wear a tie. This caused much consternation until it was discovered that it was an April Fool’s joke. A history student, Tor Egil Førland, was behind the prank.

Lene: Fortunately, Hilde Waage was there, so I could ask her about my tasks. And then I discovered that PRIO was actually well organized, with clear lines of authority and formal statutes that had been well thought through.

Grete: You came at a time when many things had been tidied up.

PRIO’s anarchic past

Grete: I was constantly reminded of it, both because people talked about it and because we still had remnants of the flat structure… The reforms had only been in effect for one year by the time I arrived, and I was fortunate not to be responsible for introducing some of the stricter reforms.

Sverre got both the honour and the blame for the transformation. The image I could form of PRIO’s past depended on who I talked to. Some were happy that there was finally some order. Others thought that PRIO had lost its soul.

Many stories were told about the good old days at PRIO’s previous offices on Rådhusgata 10, as though the place was a symbol of what had been lost. There had been times there when students and COs were in the majority at the plenary meetings and could therefore impose their viewpoints on the research staff.

In my time, too, we had many COs – seven to eight at a time. Together with the students, they constituted one third of the staff. We had quite a lot of drama and conflict, for which many would blame Sverre and me. Later on, I have thought that I could have done things differently, although I still believe there was a need to shake up the organization.

We had quite a lot of drama and conflict, for which many would blame Sverre [Lodgaard] and me. Later on, I have thought that I could have done things differently, although I still believe there was a need to shake up the organization

Grete: When I later studied at the Norwegian Business School (BI), I wrote a term paper about research management, based on my experiences at PRIO. I looked at it again today and found my notes from the farewell lunch organized at Hotel Bristol for Sverre Lodgaard, at the end of his term as director in 1992. It was there that I found the quote from a speaker who had said that PRIO had changed from anarchy to dictatorship, and one from another who claimed that eggs had needed to be broken.

At the time, PRIO’s revolution was not just a result of internal pressure for change but also a response to external demands. A committee led by [professor of political science Knut] Midgaard had come up with a set of recommendations for how to increase PRIO’s productivity. If nothing radical had been done at the time, then PRIO’s funding would have been lost or at least reduced. There was no alternative to tidying things up. According to the Midgaard recommendations, the quality of PRIO’s publications had to be improved.

Yet, I think we may have moved too quickly. This is more than thirty years ago, so my philosophy about leadership has matured. I think it is important to listen to people, acknowledge their feelings when they lose freedom or resources. When you remove authority, influence, or control from people who are used to having it, you must acknowledge what is going on – admit that it is tough and needs to be talked about.

While saying this, I want to recognize the patience Sverre showed at the time. I remember, when we set out to alter the PRIO statutes, how many hours we spent sitting in meetings of the Institute Council, discussing every word and comma. So, there was a lot more democracy at PRIO than in most other work places. Still, the transition was radical indeed.

Grete: I remember that a couple of students or COs came and asked me: “Are you very strict?” I said no. I suppose I was fortunate to arrive after the toughest reforms had been introduced, so I would mainly follow up and implement the reforms that had already been decided. I did not get into personal conflicts myself and felt that I had good relations with everyone. I really missed my PRIO colleagues when I left.

The peace researchers they met

Grete: Nils Petter Gleditsch was a forceful personality, embodying PRIO’s past. Tord Høivik as well, although he was often away. Susan Høivik had also been there a long time. Then you, Stein, and Tor Egil Førland held strong opinions about the various decisions made, although you were newcomers as doctoral students.

Grete: You and Tor Egil were not afraid of voicing your opinions in discussions with the director. Then I remember Ola Tunander. He did not take much part in discussions about the reforms but was a very good colleague and researcher.

Then there was Rune Ottosen, who was information director. He held influence as union leader. We cooperated very well, and he played an active part in the whole restructuring process. Am I right that the union was new at PRIO at the time, and that PRIO had not had a union earlier?

Grete: As far as I remember, the division of labour between the Institute Council and the union remained blurred, so this was something we had to resolve. We negotiated PRIO’s first collective agreeement (tariffavtale), which defined the issues to be left to the Institute Council and the ones to be negotiated between the union and management. I remember Rune as a highly dedicated information director and a rational, well organized NTL leader.

A friendship born at PRIO. Grete Thingelstad and Hilde Henriksen Waage at Gran Canaria in 2019. Photo: Anne Julie Semb

Hilde (Waage) was not at PRIO when I arrived. She was at home with her second child, but I remember she called me and congratulated me on the job. We only got to know each other after she was back from maternity leave. Since that time, we have remained close friends. She was a very strong personality with great influence at PRIO and we have always seen eye to eye.

Grete: I never met Marek. This is painful, since I was given the task of asking him to leave his office at PRIO after he had reached retirement age. That was a sad process. I am not sure why he was thrown out so abruptly. He had a huge library, and then he died not long afterwards.

Grete: … which Magne [Barth] took over.

Grete: I believe it was still called BPP for some time while Magne was editor. He began at PRIO a little before me. As for Kumar [Rupesinghe], he was appointed as leader of one of PRIO’s new research programmes. He travelled much and managed his programme with the help of COs, but I do not remember to what extent he took part in our decision making.

Grete: Yes, he gave a series of seminars and published some books under our new publishing agreement with SAGE, and then I took responsibility for organizing an event on his 60th birthday on 24th October 1990…

Grete: Yes. He was exactly one month older than my mum. This is why I remember his birthday. The two 60th birthdays could not have been more different. So yes, I met Johan Galtung when he came by.

Grete: How nice! Where does he live?

Grete: Well yes. This matches my impression. Johan was the kind of guy who came by.

Grete: He was totally okay. I seem to remember though that he was dissatisfied with PRIO’s new research profile. There was not enough peace and too much security for his taste. Am I right?

Grete: This was part of a deal, I think. And he attracted a good audience. And then we agreed to publish three new Galtung books with SAGE.

Lene: That past was no longer a part of PRIO. I have only heard about it and, probably to many people’s surprise, I have never met Galtung. Maybe he came by a couple of times in Fuglehauggata 11, but I never met him.

Grete: What about PRIO’s 50-year anniversary celebration? I remember that he took part.

Lene: Yes, I saw him at a distance, but we were not introduced. I think his relationship to PRIO has been frosty for a long time, although this is not much known outside PRIO. I remember receiving some warnings when I took up my work at PRIO, notably from relatives: “Lene, make sure you do not become too radical!” They had heard about PRIO’s ‘anarchic’ past, which I have never encountered.

I was interested to hear Grete talk about all the discussion that went into PRIO’s statutes. I came to an orderly and well-organized institute. The statutes were written in Norwegian and had been translated into English and did not need any further revision at the time. A basic capital (grunnkapital) had been established in accordance with the Norwegian Foundations Act. Helga Løtuft had fixed that.

We were registered as a Foundation with our own capital. We had a thoroughly negotiated collective wage agreement and also a special agreement (særavtale) between the union and management. These founding documents remain with us today – now of course in somewhat revised form. There were also templates for employment contracts. I was happy to come to a highly organized work place.

Moreover, people behaved decently towards each other. At the Refugee Council, I had experienced many heated discussions and also some conflicts. At CICERO, things were more peaceful. Climate research is a hot issue but there is not so much debate among people studying the ozone layer, Co2 or NOx. At PRIO, although the institute’s topics of study are war, conflict and peace, I encountered a calm and polite work environment. I think this was due to…

Grete: …the restructuring?

Restructuring a research institute

Lene: Yes, I think so. Yet I remember thinking that we had to do something to strengthen our finances. At the time, the core of our economy was an annual core grant managed by the Research Council of Norway. The rest of the institute’s activities were covered by project funding, but this was not an integrated part of PRIO’s finances. The project funds were not part of PRIO’s core budgets and accounts but were kept entirely separate.

This was reflected in the employment contracts. Some researchers were permanently employed with a salary from the core grant, while the rest worked on temporary contracts for the duration of their funded projects. The permanently employed researchers, who were also the most qualified and famous ones, had no responsibility for generating funds. The same was the case at many other research institutes.

Yet this could not last. A wave of reforms would completely change the funding structure of Norwegian research institutes, with framework agreements, project numbers, registration of hours worked on the various projects, a general expectation that all researchers gain income to cover their salaries and overhead, and a wholly new system for how to decide the size of the core grant received by each institute from the Research Council.

Grete: In my time, the core grant was about half the total funds. I suppose its share had been reduced by the time you arrived.

Lene: It was progressively reduced. We could not continue to have two classes of researchers: one with secure funding and one operating on soft money. I felt we had to do something about that, and I was helped to do it by pressure from the outside.

Grete: So, you carried out the same reforms at PRIO that I had to implement later at NUPI.

We could not continue to have two classes of researchers: one with secure funding and one operating on soft money. I felt we had to do something about that, and I was helped to do it by pressure from the outside

Lene: Yes. This happened in the whole institute sector. For some researchers, this was new and threatening. The permanently employed staff did not of course want to lose their privileges. Some thought that the system of hour registration, hourly rates, and request for earnings undermined their roles as free and independent academics: “Why register hours spent on research? We are not consultants but qualified researchers with a right to carry out academic studies as defined by ourselves.” We had many discussions about this.

Eventually, we introduced an incentive system [CompEx], with compensation for surplus hours. Every researcher had been required to earn a minimum of 1,200 hours at a fixed rate. Not everyone, however, was able to meet this requirement, but no one wrote hours in excess of 1,200 hours. With CompEx, we introduced a system where those who could write more than 1,200 hours would receive half of the excess earnings as an individual bonus.

Before introducing CompEx, we had to negotiate for a long time with the NTL. They were difficult negotiations. The result was a much-improved financial situation, where the excess earnings by the most sought-after staff members made up for the deficits incurred by some of the others. This made it possible for us to offer more competitive salaries to our researchers.

When I came to PRIO, the salaries were very modest. I found it unreasonable that people with such competence and dedication to their work should earn so little. Even people with a very strong inner motivation and urge to improve the world should have a decent income. So, I am happy that our financial reforms made it possible for the PRIO management to be forthcoming in our salary negotiations with the union.

Lene: Our CompEx is probably the most generous incentive system in the whole sector, and we could perhaps reduce the share of extra earnings that is paid out as an individual bonus. Yet it has certainly served PRIO well. I have noticed that many Norwegian companies are now moving away from excessive incentive systems and offer decent salaries instead under the general expectation that all employees do their best without any extra income.

I’m not sure, however, that this will work in a research institute. In a commercial company, the ability to generate earnings is the main criterion for success, also on the level of the individual. For researchers, what counts most is to generate new theories, come up with interesting empirical findings, and publish in peer-reviewed journals. A researcher can get a high status in the research community without generating any earnings. In my view, an incentive system is needed to help them also care about their earnings.

Grete: I have brought with me our annual reports. In 1984, the turnover was a little less than 4 million NOK. When I started in 1989, it had increased to 10 and went up to 12–13 before I left. The core grant was more or less constant, so it was the project funding that increased.

At NUPI, we went from 80 to 40 per cent core grant funding in the year when I began. This was dramatic. PRIO, it seems, was earlier out in its quest to generate project income. When Sverre came to PRIO, he brought with him some UN-funded projects from his previous work with the UN. A grant was also obtained from the US Ford Foundation. In addition, PRIO sold Rådhusgata 10, and the money we received was invested with help from the lawyer Jens Kristian Thune in a way that generated a nice extra income every year.

Grete: I think it has to do with the fact that PRIO has a reputation for high quality research. New publication profiles were developed through agreement with a British publisher (SAGE), and PRIO was early out in aiming to publish its work in peer-reviewed journals. It also published high quality journals of its own. When the research quality increases, the ability to earn money increases as well. Both PRIO and NUPI have raised funds from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) for projects that are relevant for Norwegian foreign policy, and also from the Ministry of Defence. PRIO has also been able to compete with university-based researchers for free project funding from the Research Council of Norway.

PRIO was early out in aiming to publish its work in peer-reviewed journals. It also published high quality journals of its own. When the research quality increases, the ability to earn money increases as well

Lene: When I began at PRIO, we managed an MFA-funded dialogue project in the Balkans, led by Director Dan Smith. It was a big project, 10–13 million NOK annually. We also got a Cyprus project, which would later lead to the establishment of a PRIO Centre in Nicosia. In the beginning, the leaders of the Cyprus project were Stein Støa and Trond Jensen. At the time of the referendum on the Annan Plan, it was led by Youli Taki and Ayla Gürel, and the first director of the Centre, when it was established, was Gina Lende who was later succeeded by Arne Strand. Today, it is led by Harry Tzimitras.

These projects brought us into a high level of financial dependence on the MFA. They also generated some debate internally as to whether or not we should take responsibility for operational projects without any significant research component. We failed to integrate research with the Balkans project but succeeded better in Cyprus. So, the Cyprus Centre is still with us, while the Balkan project was taken out of PRIO’s hands. Later on, it was placed under the responsibility of the Nansen Academy at Lillehammer. This happened, as you Stein will remember, during your time as director.

Managing researchers: Herding cats

Lene: Yet PRIO’s turnover did not much suffer from the loss of the Balkan project since at that time we got one of Norway’s first Centres of Excellence. As far as I remember, it was Nils Petter who first had the idea to apply, and he developed it together with Håvard Hegre and Scott Gates, along with Dan Smith towards the end of his directorship.

We got one of Norway’s first Centres of Excellence. As far as I remember, it was Nils Petter who first had the idea to apply, and he developed it together with Håvard Hegre and Scott Gates, along with Dan Smith

Staff at Centre for the Study of Civil War in 2008

Lene: The CSCW served as an enormous stimulus for PRIO’s research environment. The theme of civil war was well chosen, since international attention to internal armed conflict had increased significantly since the end of the Cold War, and the team established at PRIO was highly talented. I remember my enthusiasm for the application. When we got the Centre, it boosted our self-confidence. We got the right to use a special logo, and the CSCW attracted a lot of energy, extra funds and visits by some of the world’s leading researchers in the field of international relations.

Grete: Will you begin, Lene?

Lene: I have different roles vis-à-vis the administrative staff and the researchers. For the administrative staff, I am the boss. This is one role. My role vis-à-vis the researchers is more difficult to define. I am their leader in administrative matters and in matters related to HR (Human Relations) but I do not lead the activity that matters most to them, namely their research. In that domain, I am more of a service provider. I must do my best to facilitate their research, create an environment conducive to their research.

Lene: This is similar for all employees, regardless of whether they are researchers or administrative staff. In some extreme cases, which I try to avoid, I have to say, “now do it!”, but most people hate to be told what to do. So, sometimes the recipe for preventing someone from doing something is to tell them they have to do it.

The trick is to make them think that they got the idea to do something themselves. Then they do whatever it is out of joy and feel proud of it afterwards. So, instead of telling people what to do, I mention the challenges they face and ask them what they think should be done about it.

Lene: Yes. It helps to be curious about people, to try to find out what they are best at doing, how they want to develop, what will be most challenging or rewarding for them to do, how they can grow and learn, identify possibilities, and seek to create conditions conducive to success.

Grete: I may be mixing up NUPI and PRIO, but a researcher is a researcher. Working with people is in many ways the same whoever they are, but the challenge in dealing with researchers is that they sometimes feel that their projects belong to them and must not be interfered with.

I had some experience with researchers who resented the fact that the Institute requires overhead from their project funds: “These are my research funds. You’re taking my money!” In the past, it was possible to think that way. It was still possible when I began at PRIO, and changing such attitudes is not easy.

I think they may have the same problem at the universities, where the professors are asked to generate funds for their research and develop projects of relevance for adopted institutional strategies. There is not always total congruence between what a researcher wants to do and what she is paid to do. It does not help that you are interested in Indonesia if no one is ready to fund your work on Indonesia.

Research leadership is not only about facilitation but also about developing strategies and annual plans. I have many friends among researchers, and they all complain that they spend too much time writing research proposals and reporting to funders. I think a certain balance is needed.

While it is true that research leadership and administrative leadership are quite different, I think you and I, Lene, have both been members of a leadership team, with overall responsibility for the institute’s well-being, and with an authority that needs to be recognized by all concerned. Yet, I as Administrative Director could not try to decide what kind of research the researchers should undertake. This, I must admit, was part of the reason why I left my job at NUPI and started working with FK Norway, now Norec.

With my social science background, I felt constrained by my management role and wanted to take part in substantial discussions about the main mission of my workplace. You, Lene, took your exams in economy and administration. I have learnt my management skills only through practice. When I first began as an administrator, I had to ask my husband and sister for help in understanding budgets and accounts, and at the beginning I relied a lot on common sense.

Lene: I think research leaders have to rely on indirect motivation: how can this be done? What kind of structures are needed? How much should it cost? What kinds of contracts are needed? How can you make sure that the research outcome benefits the institute as a whole? How can we ensure administrative support to the researchers?

We must be curious about people, give them recognition. Everyone has a need to be seen and acknowledged. And you do not need to be a researcher yourself in order to understand the value of research. It is enough to be curious and ask. So, this is what I try to do. And the answers I get contribute greatly to my job satisfaction at PRIO.

Grete: I agree completely on the need for recognition.

Lene: We have made a four-year strategy at PRIO where we do not in fact define any research themes but consciously allow them to be defined in a bottom-up process. In our previous strategy, we defined certain areas as particularly important but discovered that it was difficult to cover some of them. On the other hand, some new and fruitful research ideas came up that did not fit with the strategic priorities.

So, I think perhaps the research themes should be defined by the researchers themselves. They have this inner urge. We may gently channel their energy in certain directions but must not set rules or guidelines that dampen or stifle it.

A loss of visibility?

Grete: Research institutes depend on recognition. To be recognized it is necessary to make one’s views and findings known through the media. I think it is essential for any Norwegian social science research institute to appear regularly in Dagsnytt 18 (a debate program on Norwegian radio appearing at 6pm every weekday). My colleagues at NUPI used to do that, and it was a good way to make the institute visible.

If you are too controversial, as Galtung may have been sometimes in many people’s view, you will no longer be consulted for advice

In order to appear on DN18, you must have some clear opinions and formulate them sharply, and you must explain your views by stating: “Research has shown that …”. Yet, you must not exaggerate or present arguments that can easily be shown not to hold water. Then you lose reliability. If you are too controversial, as Galtung may have been sometimes in many people’s view, you will no longer be consulted for advice.

Sometimes, when I meet researchers who study very small details that only a few people know about, I tease them by asking if it is of interest to anyone other than themselves, and then they sometimes feel insulted. Yet this is about money. Someone has to pay for what you are doing, and you should be able to present why it is relevant. 

Grete: To be a bit blunt, my impression is that PRIO has appeared in the media when the Nobel Peace Prize is to be predicted – and also sometimes when there is talk about Afghanistan.

Grete: Yes. He used to comment on Afghanistan and the Nobel Peace Prize. It has become quieter now, hasn’t it? I may be wrong, but my impression is also that NUPI has lost some visibility.

Lene: I do not think it is quiet around PRIO. No, certainly not. PRIO puts great emphasis on presenting research insights and providing relevant input to Norwegian public debates and foreign policy making, and on making sure that these contributions are based on world class research.

Lene K. Borg helps make PRIO visible. Here she attends the PRIO Annual Peace Address in 2009.

To maintain a high research quality is part of PRIO’s branding. This is something you, Stein, emphasized strongly in your period as director. You wanted high quality and measured our success in terms of publications in the leading journals. You had this as your priority number one, but then you also wanted to make PRIO’s research publicly known and you wanted our researchers to take part in public debates both in Norway and internationally.

Sometimes solid research reveals something that is controversial and difficult to express, but then you have the advantage of being able to back up what you say with solid evidence. This is in my view extremely important.

The quality of our research is crucial to PRIO’s branding and something we are proud of. Maybe this has led us to be more academically correct or cautious in what we say publicly, but I’m not really sure that is the case. It’s difficult for me to imagine, when we deal with complex matters, that we may be able to just say yes or no or black and white. Most issues have at least two sides and can be viewed from several angles.

Grete: Yet seen from the outside, since I left PRIO in 1995…

Lene: …it has become quiet around PRIO?

Grete: I don’t really know, but anyhow I agree that PRIO enjoys recognition for its high-quality research.

One issue I think we must take up are the several proposals that have been made over the years to assemble PRIO, NUPI and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in the same building. Was there talk of including other institutes as well?

Lene: Yes. It was also proposed to include CICERO.

Grete: A proposal along those lines came from the (Geir) Lundestad committee. At that time, some 25 years ago if I remember correctly, PRIO was considered as the little brother or sister. I was at PRIO at the time, and we were afraid of being eaten by NUPI. And the FNI could not move because it was bound by its statutes to remain at Fridtjof Nansen’s burial place at Polhøgda, near the old Fornebu airport. So, if we had moved into the same building, we would have all had to move out there. I remember that there was a lot of back and forth about this.

Lene: It is true that we do not think of ourselves as a little brother anymore.

Grete: But do you agree that it was so at the time?

Grete: …civil servants…

Lene: We have dialogue meetings with the Research Council every year. The Research Council always tells us how impressed they are with PRIO. We are praised for the number and quality of our publications, we do well both in specific research programmes and in obtaining the most competitive grants. We did very well in recent evaluations both in the humanities and social sciences. So, they ask us what our recipe is. It is difficult to reduce this to a single factor. I think it’s that we have been stacking one stone on top of another over a long period and that this has resulted in a solid building. Or, what do you think, Stein?

Grete: I went from little brother to big brother. There were many more people at NUPI. More well-known faces and names. But I came there at a time with a need for financial reform. The core grant was drastically reduced. So, I was thrown into organizational changes that again almost amounted to a revolution, with Sverre at the forefront and me as his executive.

As for the researchers, their challenge was to not just think about their own research but to see the institute as a community with shared goals. We needed to see the bigger picture, create some programmes, and adopt a research strategy aimed at enlarging our programmes. I don’t quite remember how much of this had already been done when I arrived at NUPI. I remember that we established a UN programme, a Europe programme, etc.

The researchers, the ‘cats’ you say we are supposed to be herding, had to establish an identity within a larger setting than themselves. When I left NUPI and joined FK Norway (Norec), what I missed the most was the long lunch table with debates among the researchers. It made me feel informed about international affairs. At FK Norway, we were only some 12–15 people at the time when I started, so I really missed those debates.

Grete: It is an enormous advantage to have had English as your working language, and we have the same in FK Norway. And as NUPI always had many guest researchers, and as most of its publications were in English, there was not much difference between PRIO and NUPI in that regard.

Lene: We also have a five-institute network among NUPI, CMI, CICERO, FNI and PRIO, and hold meetings among the five administrative directors. I think perhaps that PRIO, which has had English as its working language from the beginning in 1959 and has many non-Norwegian employees, is the most internationally oriented.

When researchers arrive from other countries, they say they appreciate the community feeling at PRIO. We pay attention to fostering that feeling by emphasizing the need to be present at the workplace, creating meeting spaces, welcoming newcomers, and wishing people a proper farewell when they leave us. PRIO is meant to be a working place where people can meet colleagues and discuss topics with them. I think we have a tight-knit community. At least, we have visitors who tell us that this is their impression.

Lene: There have been some difficult conflicts at PRIO. This cannot be denied. But we have got through them. I think we have a culture for discussing our disagreements politely. We can disagree, but we discuss the matter at hand instead of attacking the person we disagree with.

I think it was very hard to decide what to do with our pensions. We are members of the Norwegian Public Service Pension Fund (Statens pensjonskasse). The cost of these pensions increased enormously, almost to the extent of consuming all our savings and bankrupting us, so we had to do something about it and reduce the value of our pension rights.

This was difficult because it created conflicts of interest between the various generations of researchers. Yet, I felt that we were able to discuss it and reach a rational conclusion. In the end, the matter was resolved in an unforeseen way, but while we struggled with this problem, it was really very difficult.

Comparing PRIO’s directors

Grete: I have already said something about Sverre. He assumed the role of a tough decision maker, and I think perhaps he could have carried out his task more mildly. Yet, there are times when a revolution is needed. Sverre was a strong leader with a forceful personality. He came back to PRIO after a stay at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and had some ideas about how to lead a research institute. These ideas differed from the philosophy that had been in vogue at PRIO.

Yet his reforms were welcomed by many of the staff, who saw a need for change. He did it with a ‘bang’, but he and I worked well together, and he would later headhunt me for a position at NUPI at a time when I had decided to study law and become a lawyer. This never ended up happening, as I allowed him to persuade me to join him at NUPI. Then, we transformed NUPI in almost the same way as we had PRIO.

Grete: Sverre had spent a few years working for the UN in Geneva and had grown both older and milder. The situation was also slightly different at NUPI. The main thing that had to be cleaned up was the finances. The researchers had increased their applications for project funding, a process which many of them had never previously had to undergo.

Lene: We still have the Institute Council (IC) and statutes that make sure it is heard. Our decision-making system is rather time consuming. We are now some 100 staff, and they get 2–300-page documents before every IC meeting, which they are expected to read. So, it is perhaps unjust to expect every staff member to read through all this documentation and keep abreast of all kinds of matters.

On the other hand, I think it is a major advantage to have it this way, since managing researchers upside-down is hardly recommendable. If they are not heard as members of a community, they may become individuals who do not listen either to their bosses or their colleagues, who do not form teams, but concentrate uniquely on their research. In that case, PRIO would degenerate into a research hotel with no community feeling and no sense of loyalty. I want to protect our current system.

Grete: I understand, and yet you have moved far away from the system that prevailed when big and small decisions were made in plenary meetings and everyone earned the same salary, with just some difference in accordance with seniority. I think even the salaries were decided by the plenary meeting.

Lene: Of course, we are nowhere near that system today. Yet, we still have a kind of corporate democracy.

Grete: Many young people today will be surprised that what we did when Sverre returned to PRIO was seen as radical. Today, it seems almost natural to have a director with decision making power. Many probably even breathed a sigh of relief when they no longer had to make up their mind about how to vote on every little matter.

Grete: Up and down perhaps. They knew each other well, for better or worse. I do not think they were engaged in positional war or anything like that. Yet Nils Petter was… not perhaps a rebel but a kind of rebel anyway, and he was one of the architects behind the old system. When you lose something you have built and believed in, you do not feel happy.

Yet I have only warm thoughts about Nils Petter. I spoke with my children recently about how nice it was to visit Nils Petter’s office when they were kids. He allowed them to open his drawers where they found some children’s toys. I suppose there must have been a reason why I mentioned Nils Petter first. I could just as well have mentioned Tord Høivik, but he was much away at the time, so he did not become a symbol of the old PRIO in the same way as Nils Petter.

Lene: PRIO has had very good leaders. This has been one of its strengths. Straight and decent leaders with both scholarly and managerial talent. I think this is one of the reasons why PRIO has done so well.

Dan was obviously important. He was here when I began. He’s English, and the period of his tenure was probably the most internationally oriented in all of PRIO’s history. The English language was practised more naturally back then than it is these days at PRIO. Today, we use English in the IC and other meetings, but when we’re having discussions in the corridors and offices, we often speak Norwegian. This was not the case in Dan’s time.

You, Stein, were a good leader for me. It was fun to work with you. You pleased me on the very first day when you said that you would take care of research management while I should take responsibility for all administrative matters. You wanted me to make decisions myself and consult you only when necessary. This gave me greater freedom than before, and I liked it.

You were open with me, and I felt that I could trust you. I always knew what you thought or felt. You did not hide anything. This remains the case even today and it feels safe. The whole organization noticed this about you, that you did not behave strategically but expressed your genuine views and feelings. I also appreciated your emphasis on academic quality – that you always sought to lift the quality of PRIO’s research.

Kristian was a fabulous leader for PRIO. He focused on every individual and on the organization as a whole. He was better than any other PRIO director at running an organization and at thinking of it as an organization. He would knit people together, see new opportunities, and work strategically to improve the organization.

Henrik is a highly qualified scholar, who emphasizes scholarly quality. He is more like you, I think. He enjoys a high level of respect among the researchers because their own values are reflected in his personality. He is also straightforward and very good at resolving administrative matters.

Grete: Was he recruited internally?

Lene: Yes.

Grete: So, it is only Dan who has been recruited from the outside?

Lene: As a matter of fact, yes.

Grete: Because Kristian arrived as a student in my time already, and although Stein came from the outside when he took over as director he had been at PRIO during two periods before.

Lene: There was some discussion between Dan and Hilde. This was a little difficult for me, since I owed loyalty to both. Dan was director. Hilde was deputy director, and I was administrative director. They did not always want the same thing. It was challenging for me to stand between them.

Grete: I also served under Hilde and Dan. She was interim director from the time Sverre left until Dan arrived. This is a period she and I reminisce about when meeting each other as friends. The fact that two young women – yes, we were very young at the time – could be running PRIO. I also remember how Dan brought the wider world to PRIO, with his connections, his English language and his wit. The English at PRIO improved tremendously in his time.

[Hilde Henriksen Waage] was interim director from the time Sverre left until Dan arrived. This is a period she and I reminisce about when meeting each other as friends. The fact that two young women – yes, we were very young at the time – could be running PRIO

Lene: It really did.

Grete: I wonder if it was Kumar. Or perhaps not. I think it was Nils Petter. We asked a consultancy firm to help with the hiring.

Lene: We have used the same firm, ISCO Group, later too.

Grete: I think Arild Underdal was chair of the Board at the time. Hilde, Arild and I handled the contact with ISCO.

How to recruit researchers

Lene: We often advertise positions and hire people on the basis of trial lectures, interviews, and committee evaluations of their academic publications, sometimes with the help of a consultant. Even then, when we do everything according to the book, we sometimes make mistakes. There are things we simply cannot discover without having a candidate with us for a longer period of time.

In my view, the most secure way to make a safe recruitment choice is to invite a young researcher to work on one of our projects as a research assistant or junior researcher, hire her or him on a temporary contract and try her out over time. Then we assist her in developing a good PhD proposal, keep her on as a doctoral candidate and hire her permanently after she has completed the doctorate.

Another safe way is to hire someone horizontally: someone who has been engaged in cooperation with PRIO on a collaborative project while being employed by someone else, and whom we therefore know well. This was the case with Torunn Tryggestad, who used to work at NUPI and who has played an essential role in developing gender research at PRIO.

I feel there’s a dilemma here. If you read about recruitment, all the books say that it should be done by advertising the job publicly, spreading the net as widely as possible in order to catch the biggest fish. But when I think back, we found some of our best researchers in the way I mentioned.

This does not mean that we recruit only Norwegians. Young students from many countries, often also with practice in the field, come to PRIO as interns or participants in conferences. They exchange ideas and form ties with our researchers. Then perhaps they jointly write up a research proposal, and if it is funded they can be hired as project staff on a temporary contract. I cannot remember having had any trouble with researchers recruited that way.

Grete: I think it is particularly risky to base a recruitment decision uniquely on academic qualifications. Committee evaluations may be skewed and manipulated. The result of an evaluation may in fact be determined by the choice of committee members. We must always supplement such evaluations with interviews, trial lectures and tests. You need to define precise criteria for the job you need to fill and must use sophisticated interview techniques. To make a good interview is in itself a profession.

Lene: One problem is that those who have the highest academic competence sometimes have little experience with writing project proposals, generating funds, networking, making sense of their research in communication with decision makers and in speaking to the media. If we hire someone without any of these skills, a highly qualified academic who can only write scholarly articles, then we have to restart their professional training at PRIO, teaching them how to do all the rest. This requires a hefty organizational effort.

Grete: Sverre and I did that sometimes. When hiring a new communication director, we gave the candidates an op-ed Sverre had written in Norwegian about the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and asked them to write an English summary. Several candidates did not know the correct translation of “prøvestansavtale.”

It is particularly risky to base a recruitment decision uniquely on academic qualifications. Committee evaluations may be skewed and manipulated. […] We must always supplement such evaluations with interviews, trial lectures and tests. […] To make a good interview is in itself a profession

Conscientious objectors (COs) and gender balance

Grete: I think we should reflect on the role of the COs.

Lene: They no longer exist.

Grete: Exactly. They no longer exist but they played a huge role in the past. They were a cheap and sometimes highly qualified work force. In the term paper I wrote at BI, I noted the advantage PRIO had gained from having someone with a doctoral degree in philosophy run its switchboard.

Yet, I added in my term paper that this was not perhaps a rational use of that philosopher’s competence. At any rate, it would be interesting if someone could undertake a little research project on the contribution that COs made to PRIO over time. I remember a person who worked at PRIO in four different positions: first as a CO, then a student, then a cleaning assistant and finally as a researcher.

Many COs were eager to get work at PRIO – much preferable to working at a hospital or nursing home. Were they sometimes allowed to fill roles for which they were not qualified? Were they given too much influence? We had some who thought they were too good to carry out menial tasks. I think we had ten CO positions (hjemler) in my time.

[Conscientious objectors] were a cheap and sometimes highly qualified work force. […] I noted the advantage PRIO had gained from having someone with a doctoral degree in philosophy run its switchboard

Lene: Ten COs?

Grete: Not all positions were filled at any one time, but I seem to remember we had ten positions we could fill if need be and if we could find the right candidates. I’m not aware that anyone has written about their role.

Grete: The COs provided very cheap labour and the work they did for PRIO over the years was immensely important. Many of them were strongly motivated, talented people, and quite a few of them went on to choose an academic career. Many have maintained an affinity to PRIO. I would like to mention, though, a slightly acerbic remark I received from a Soviet guest researcher.

Grete: It may have been him. At any rate, he asked: “What is a CO?” I tried to explain: “They work for us as an alternative to serving in the military, and sometimes they complain about the work we ask them to do when they do not think it’s sufficiently meaningful.” One of them had just turned sour when I asked him to do some work at the copy machine.

“Okay,” said this Russian: “If I go back to Moscow and give a young man a choice between going to Afghanistan and copying some papers in a research institute, what do you think he might choose?” He did not pity the young bloke who was copying under my orders. Then, a downside in having so many COs was that they made it impossible to even dream of an appropriate gender balance at PRIO.

Lene: Now that we no longer have any COs we must rely on a professional administration, but we are thinking about creating a formal intern or trainee programme, since we receive so many requests from abroad for internship.

Lene: We are now almost fifty-fifty.

Among the research professors, the men are still in a majority, while on the postdoctoral level we have a few more women than men.

Among the PhD students and research assistants, there are almost only females. So, the two challenges we face are to recruit junior males and to help women acquire professor competence.

Lene: …since this would just mean stealing them from others.

Fantastic lives

Grete: I think so. First at PRIO, then NUPI. When people hear I have worked at these two institutes, they straighten their backs a little: “Oh! So, you have worked there!” Really. Norec, where I work now is not as well known as PRIO and NUPI. Yet, the job content in Norec is more meaningful for me.

I don’t think I would have got such an interesting job had I not first worked at PRIO and NUPI. If I had not applied to PRIO or had resisted Sverre’s wish that I come to NUPI, I would most likely have become a lawyer. Life has its happenstances. I’m happy that I got that job at PRIO and that I let Sverre persuade me. I’m happy with the direction that my life has taken. Even proud.

It’s fun to come to work every morning and witness all the discussions in the corridors about where the world is heading. I feel like part of a big community

Lene: The same goes for me. I am immensely happy that I got to work for PRIO. It has been an incredibly good place for me. I’m genuinely proud of my work. I have good colleagues in the administration. My cooperation with the directors has worked well.

It’s fun to come to work every morning and witness all the discussions in the corridors about where the world is heading. I feel like part of a big community. This has been fantastic.

Thank you both very much, Lene and Grete.

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