This paper examines the impact of a new national R&D programme in Norway, Programme for Regional Innovation and R&D (VRI), which uses action research (AR) to facilitate innovation-oriented collaboration between regional industry, R&D and public institutions. While the VRI programme builds on a sequence of previous AR-oriented regional development programmes, it represents a significant novelty as it democratizes control over research funds from central authorities to regional coalitions of private and public decision makers. Drawing on our own experiences from a long-standing AR project in the Telemark region, we discuss how the commencement of the VRI programme is affecting ongoing development initiatives there and the conditions for conducting AR in regional contexts. We conclude that VRI has led to a situation in which more regional actors are involved in action research activities, and in which there is closer collaboration between researchers and regional decision makers. At the same time, we suggest, there is a risk that the new programme will lead to regional lock-in, and marginalization of national R&D institutions and action research competencies accumulated there during previous R&D programmes.
Key words: Large scale action research, regionalization, national programme, Scandinavian model, social partners
The conditions for doing large scale action research in Norway are currently being influenced by decentralization of R&D resources to the regional level. This corresponds with a widespread belief among academics and governments that regionally based collaborations among public organizations, private industry and R&D are crucial for innovation and value creation (Porter/Solvell 1998; Asheim/Isaksen 2002; Fricke/Totterdill 2004; Asheim/ Gertler 2005). Many also endorse the argument that, in order to successfully develop such collaborative relations, regional actors should be given both resources and autonomy to carry out their own local development activities (Ennals/Gustavsen 1999; Amin 2004). For instance, drawing on a study of regional development policy in Sweden and the USA, Goldfarb/Henrekson (2003) show that regionalization of R&D resources is associated with enhanced collaboration between universities and industry, including significant involvement of new firms. The idea is that decentralization will induce closer collaboration between R&D and local work life, and thereby increase the relevance and quality of the research undertaken regionally. This resonates with a fundamental principle in action research of bringing influence over change processes closer to the people who stand to be affected by these (Lewin 1946; Reason/Bradbury 2001; Park 2001; Streck et al. 2005; Streck 2006). Indeed, as Lewin (1946) has argued; if people are active in decisions affecting them, they are more likely to adopt new and better ways.
These perspectives also reflect current policy trends in Norway, where the authors of this paper are conducting their research. Many policy makers now militate against standardised, top-down regional development policies, campaigning instead for a bottom-up approach where one seeks to differentiate and customise development activities to regional needs. For instance, according to the last inaugural declaration of the government, there is a need to stimulate growth in the regions through greater and more locally adapted investments in R&D and innovation (Office of the Norwegian Prime Minister 2005). Similarly, as stated in a government white paper; decentralization of R&D resources can make regional development processes more efficient and locally relevant, both in the sense that more local actors get mobilized in R&D, and in the sense that decisions about R&D activities get taken closer to those who stand to be affected by these (Norwegian Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development 2004). …