NSD – 50 years of delivering data to reseach

Through five decades, NSD has provided data to research. The Norwegian centre for research data grew from the idea of its founder Stein Rokkan: That data is a collective good that should be shared.

By: Atle Alvheim
The article was written on the occasion of NSD’s 50th anniversary.

The Norwegian Social Science Data Services (NSD) was established by the Norwegian Research Council for Science and the Humanities (NAVF) in 1971, and became a permanent service in 1978.

NSD was institutionally affiliated to its successor, the Research Council of Norway, up until 2002.

Following a resolution by the Storting (the Norwegian Parliament), NSD was divested from the Research Council on 1 January 2003 and established as the Norwegian Social Science Data Services, a state-owned limited company owned by the Ministry of Education and Research.

Introduction to NSD's history

On its 50th anniversary in 2021, NSD is a resource centre and provides important infrastructure for Norwegian research. This not only applies to the social science disciplines, which was the centre's initial remit, but also to the humanities, medicine and health disciplines.

This breadth is also why NSD changed its name in 2016 to NSD – Norwegian Centre for Research Data. The NSD name has been firmly established in Norwegian and international research communities for more than 50 years.

NSD is one of the world’s largest research data archives, providing data and data services to the research sector. Most of its services are available to users free of charge. As a resource centre, NSD provides guidance to researchers and students in the fields of data collection, data analysis, research methodology, data protection and research ethics.

Its main objective is to improve opportunities and framework conditions for empirical research, which is dependent on access to relevant data. With this in view, NSD endeavours to remove the financial, technical, knowledge-based, legal and administrative barriers between users and data resources.

The founding father(s)

The history of NSD is inseparably linked to two names: Stein Rokkan and Bjørn Henrichsen. Stein Rokkan was a formidable intellect and a leading figure in the development of social research, in terms of both academic work and institutions.

Among many other things, Rokkan became one of the prominent drivers of the international and national social science data archive movement, which he considered a foundation for empirical research. NSD was planned as such a foundation, both for Rokkan’s own future research and for social research in Norway in general.

Bjørn Henrichsen was assigned the task of implementing and developing the idea of living data archives as long-term, academically relevant, permanent services with a wide area of impact.

Henrichsen had been part of the first group of students taught by Rokkan at the University of Bergen, and Rokkan hand-picked him for this role, having previously been put to the test as department secretary at the Department of Sociology.

Rokkan and Henrichsen were appointed commander and knight, respectively, of the Order of St. Olav for their efforts for the benefit of society.

Disclaimers

This simple review of NSD’s history attempts to follow a few guiding principles. As always when recounting a story, in this case over 50 dynamic years of the development of a single element during a period of entrepreneurship in Norwegian social sciences, time becomes an important variable. Since events take place at a particular point in time and are sequential, a chronological thread has been the intended output.

At the same time, it was NSD’s ambition to play an essential role in the development of Norwegian social sciences, with a strategic position in the bigger picture, and its relationship to the other participants is therefore of interest. It is thus important to document NSD's relationships with the most important collaborating institutions and the most distinct milestones. It is furthermore the case that most things are carried out as projects, defined as organised activities with a clear objective.

NSD itself started out as a time-limited project and was shortly thereafter turned into a permanent service. Many different criteria are used to categorise projects. Here, emphasis has been placed on describing and communicating context and the reasons behind the projects that are most interesting to NSD’s story.

NSD was established to provide data and data services. Some of the projects or assignments that came later naturally contributed to developing the organisation, while others focused exclusively on the form or content of NSD’s services.

NSD did not aim to earn money nor merely be a workplace, but some projects were taken on out of pure financial necessity. During the initial period, the development largely took the form of an expansion of NSD’s assignments, while later projects were of a more time-limited nature and formed the basis for technically-oriented development.

What is important, however, is that NSD was established by the research community with the intention of conducting an important mission, and that it has been managed on the basis of its statutory objective.

It will therefore be of interest to describe and evaluate how and to what degree the project portfolio made NSD better equipped to perform its mission.

This account of NSD’s history has been written independently of the various reviews of the organisation by the external knowledge sector initiated during the period 2015–2019.