West Coast friendships lead to sound research

Now in its 18th year, the University of Bergen and University of Washington in Seattle research exchange programme is more vital than ever. Last year, this cooperation was extended to cover also doctorate studies.


– An interesting feature of our cooperation with the University of Washington is that it is not based on any formal document. Nevertheless, it is probably the most successful of all UiB's exchange programmes, says Orm Øverland. Øverland, who is Professor of American Studies in Bergen, has been involved in the Seattle programme ever since it started in 1978, when he was chairman of the Seattle Committee at the University of Bergen. Today he is a member of the newly set up committee responsible for contacts between the University of Washington and Memorial University on Newfoundland. Through two research sojourns in Seattle, Øverland has also gained considerable personal experience of the exchange programme.

Personal contacts

– It is the personal contact that is established between researchers that forms the basis of our cooperation with the University of Washington, Øverland believes.

– This is a generally perceived phenomenon when it comes to university cooperation: there is little help in formal resolutions passed at the highest levels if there is no interest at the grass roots. The Erasmus programme, as we have seen it up to now, is another example of how things can be done more simply and efficiently when there is no need for extensive bureaucracy. Since 1979, more than 50 researchers from the University of Bergen have visited Washington, while a good 40 have made the reverse journey. The academic fields have been varied. All the faculties at the University of Bergen have been represented in the programme, though some have naturally been more active than others. So far, the Faculties of Arts, Science and Mathematics and Medicine have sent most researchers across the Atlantic. Not surprisingly, since the universities are located in two maritime cities such as Seattle and Bergen, fishery and marine research is one of the most central areas in which cooperation has been established. Researchers in language and literature have also made very active use of the Seattle exchange programme.

Though researchers at the two universities visit each other for research purposes, and are thus exempt from teaching duties, there have been knock-on effects in the teaching programmes. For instance, the University of Washington offers a course in Political Science in Scandinavia, and this has benefitted greatly from the expertise of UiB researchers. But then comparative politics is the subject area of Professor Donald R. Matthews, perhaps the most important single person involved in the Seattle-Bergen programme. Matthews himself has been to Bergen several times on research projects, and has been an active force in this work ever since 1978. He has now retired from his position at the University of Washington, but remains in close contact with his counterparts in Bergen.

New opening for doctorate students

It was not until last year that the Seattle exchange programme was opened for candidates preparing their doctorates. The first to make use of this offer was the medical researcher Odd Helge Gilja, who was very satisfied with his stay at the University of Washington.

– I found this exchange extremely valuable in my work on my doctorate. I have been working with ultrasound research on abdominal cavity organs, and in this field the University of Washington has more than 20 years' experience. It was also very useful to observe the high technical quality of the research over there. In Seattle, medical researchers work much more closely with engineers than here at home. Although I was only there for three months, I feel that I learned a lot and managed to achieve a great deal.

Gilja also praises the way in which he was received in Seattle by the academic environment, the accommodation he was allocated and the way he was included in social activities.

– I would definitely recommend a stay at the University of Washington for other doctorate students. Any difficulties in financing such a stay can always be sorted out; it is just a question of looking for the possibilities that are available.

Up to now, funding has been a slight obstacle to the exchange of doctorate students between the two universities. It has been difficult for the University of Washington to allow students from Norway to work there without paying tuition fees. However, work is now in progress to find a solution to this difficulty, either by granting a certain number of tuition waivers for UiB candidates, or by defining the participants in the programme as "in-state residents".

Cultural links

On the whole, the academic level at the University of Washington is high. Seattle is one of the most highly thought of state universities in the country, and several of its departments are ranked among the top 5% in the USA according to the American rating system. This of course makes it even more attractive for the University of Bergen to retain its contacts. Seattle for their part are both historically and culturally motivated for this cooperation.

– There are of course many reasons why our cooperation with the University of Washington has been so successful, maintains Orm Øverland.

– The contact between Bergen and Seattle has long been good, as witnessed by their status as twin cities. A totem pole erected in Nordnesparken was given to Bergen by the city of Seattle as a concrete symbol of this friendship. The State of Washington has a very large Scandinavian population, and American universities need to be aware of the cultural affiliations of the local population, not least when it comes to seeking private sponsors. I would imagine, therefore, that cooperation with a Norwegian university is particularly attractive.

During one of his research visits to Seattle, Øverland himself experienced the strong bonds that still link many Seattle residents to Norway.

– I had the great honour to be asked to give the 17th of May speech during the Seattle celebrations of Norway's Independence Day. To be sure, the number attending was not quite as large as in Bergen on the 17th of May, but nevertheless it was a exciting experience, smiles Orm Øverland.

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