Nordic centre closure a ‘big blow’ to Asia studies

Scholars lament loss of ‘critical’ resource in Nordics at a time when knowledge of Asia is ‘increasingly important’

September 1, 2023
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After five decades of service, the Nordic countries’ research hub for Asia studies is shutting down – despite a greater need to understand the region, scholars say.

This December, the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies (NIAS) will close its doors because the five countries that have supported it from its establishment in 1968 are discontinuing funding.

“After years of spirited resistance, it is now time to face facts…with a heavy heart, we announce the final closure [on] 31 December,” the organisation, currently headquartered at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, announced.

Since its founding, NIAS has brought together “fragmented” research from various disciplines and universities on a topic that has “marginal status” in academia, according to the group.

Kenneth Bo Nielsen, an associate professor of anthropology focusing on contemporary India at the University of Oslo, said the loss of NIAS came as a “big blow” to Asia studies.

“Increasingly, the push in academia is research output…but all the infrastructure that enables us to do good research, people are less interested in that,” he said.

Besides giving universities access to “incredibly expensive” journal subscriptions that many couldn’t afford on their own, NIAS organised annual conferences linking scholars often isolated in their topics of study, said Dr Nielsen, who is now vice-chair of the Nordic NIAS Council, which supports Asia studies across 23 Nordic universities and research institutions.

He said he feared there would be few willing to take over this role. “There’s very little academic credit to be gained from organising a big international conference,” he added.

Equally important, NIAS has provided a generation of young researchers with mentorship and companionship in their fields, Dr Nielsen noted.

“My experience at the time was quite typical for a student interested in Asia, that quite often you’re the only one in your department,” he said, recalling his first trip to the institute as a master’s student in 2002.

“NIAS was like paradise. It was moving from a library with no books on India to one that had an endless amount of material.”

Scholars unaffiliated with the institute also expressed regret over its closure.

China specialist Denis Simon, who recently stepped down from a professorship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, echoed the sentiment. He said the institute’s popular Asia podcast – which currently has about 700,000 downloads and a sizeable portion of listeners in North America – “will be missed”.

“It is strange to see an Asia-focused research centre being closed as we surely have moved into what appears to be the so-called Asian century,” said Professor Simon, adding that China’s rise “in and of itself is enough to command sustained scholarly attention”.

“We need a global brain power trust in place to assess and analyse trends and developments in Asia and between Asia and the rest of the world,” he said.

William Hurst, the Chong Hua professor of Chinese development at the University of Cambridge, described the closure as “horribly sad news”.

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