Science - March 17, 2010

Thinking together: How can we join forces?

Collaboration between different disciplines is a prerequisite for being able to understand complex issues properly. But Marten Scheffer says that is not happening because universities are very hierarchical, motivated by financial incentives and run by a fairly homogenous group of Western males (see too p.15). One of his suggestions is a symposium, in the classical Greek sense of the word: a place on campus where people meet up to eat, drink and exchange ideas. A realistic idea?

common room in Lorentzcentrum in Leiden
Prem Bindraban, director of the ISRIC soil institute:
'I find it an appealing analysis but you need to be careful you don't glorify the alternative. I come from the time when people didn't work in projects or have financial incentives. Things were a lot less efficient then. Sometimes you need to shake things up. Really, it's just like school: you can give some children a lot of freedom whereas there are others you have to take by the hand.
'I will certainly go to the symposium. I myself have discovered how important informal contacts with other disciplines can be. I had discussions with an economist and someone from General Studies about food safety over a period of 18 months in various cafés. The end result was a series of lectures.'

Jos Engelen, chairman of the NWO, which provides scientific research grants:
'I broadly agree with Scheffer that researchers should be more ready to learn from each other's work. NWO does actually encourage collaboration; we have a lot of grants focusing on that. We also have the Complex Systems programme.
'I find the idea of the symposium romantic, but it is certainly interesting too. I saw at first hand how Scheffer sat in our waiting room with coffee and cakes just before he collected the Spinoza prize, concocting plans with the other winners. That was really a small-scale version of a symposium.'

Louise Vet, director of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology (NIOO-KNAW)
'I agree entirely. There is no bonus in the funding system for collaboration and the Chair Groups are very much single discipline groups: lectures and seminars take place within the confines of that discipline.
'At NIOO we try to bring disciplines together by shutting up all the researchers together for two days every year. We also have project groups that extend across the fields of terrestrial, marine and freshwater ecology - we will put a post-doc on that, for example. So that is a kind of bonus for leaving the confines of your own discipline.
'We would very much like to join in the discussion café. In November we will be moving to our new building opposite the campus. We will be within walking distance then. What is important is that there should be a welcoming atmosphere and it should be truly multi-disciplinary. And no nine-to-five mentality. You should be able to go to the pub at five, get a bite to eat and then return to the lab - just like the Americans do. So that means that the café has to stay open late - unlike at the moment in Forum.'
 
Carel Oomes, who runs the Vlaamsche Reus café
'Long discussions take place over a pint of beer. You pick snippets up when working behind the bar. People talk a lot about climate change. We get a lot of University staff. What you often see is that they're the same type of people, for example researchers in one department, people visiting a potato congress or people from Food Valley.

Arjen Doelman, director of the Lorentz centre in Leiden
'The Lorentz centre is based on the idea that science thrives on the interaction between creative researchers. Our centre organizes international workshops for forty to sixty scientists. They have lunch together, eat together, attend a wine and cheese party, and all stay at the same hotel.
'The workshops consist of talks, discussions and working sessions. They last a week and we wouldn't want to make them any shorter. We currently hold 45 workshops a year.
'It is difficult to prove that they have an effect but we do have a hall of fame. We are proud of the fact that the Hubble constant was determined here, because that's a complex system. All the different disciplines spent a week long making calculations, leading to the determination of the definitive value and the margin of error. One participant said this would have taken two years otherwise.'

Marten Scheffer, professor of Aquatic Ecology
'A symposium like this should bring people who aren't already acquainted into contact with each other. You can do that by choosing table sizes that don't match the group size so that groups have to split up. I also have in mind windows, tables or walls you can scrawl on with felt pens. The Santa Fe institute is famous for the windows anyone can write on.
'The area should not be intimidating; instead it should be invitingly messy with places to hang out and sitting areas, preferably with furniture rescued from the dump rather than expensive designer sofas. What also helps is free drinks every now and again, or an espresso machine where you can make your own espresso. That takes a bit of time, so that becomes a breeding ground where people bump into each other. And the secret weapon: really good food! With a top-class chef who makes soup using seasonal vegetables and bakes fresh bread. You should work the idea out in a group with undergraduates, the General Studies people, professors and PhD students. I am expecting the best ideas to come from the PhD students: they are experimental, open and have the busiest social life,

Ralf Kurvers, Resource Ecology PhD student and organizer of the WEES series of seminars
'For WEES, we deliberately invite speakers from different disciplines in evolution and ecology. Otherwise you still end up with tunnel vision. We are trying to break that pattern. There is still plenty of room for improvement in Wageningen where that is concerned.
'You do need to facilitate a creative process like that, for example through a master-class or speaker. It is pointless just bringing people together without any guidance. You have to start off somewhere with the thought process and then encourage people to think further themselves.

Rector magnificus Martin Kropff did not wish to give a reaction. He does not want to say anything in advance of Wageningen UR's new strategy. The discussions about the strategic plan for 2011-2014 cover such matters as the number of female professors and the financial management of Chair Groups.

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