The characteristics and prospects of the UBIAS

The panel has brought together directors and representatives of several members of the UBIAS network

The panel discussion The Future of UBIAS, held during the Intercontinental Academia's second phase, in Nagoya, on March 11, did not deal with the agenda for the coming years of the University-Based Institutes for Advanced Study network, but with the specific characteristics of associated institutes for advanced study (IASs) and how they contribute to the advancement of knowledge and to the revitalization of the academic environment.

The concern of the panelists is natural once that the strengthening of the IASs leads directly to the consolidation of the UBIAS as an international collaborative network.

The event has brought together directors and representatives of IASs, as well as coordinators, participants and some of the lecturers of the Intercontinental Academia. Much of the discussion revolved around the importance and peculiarities of interdisciplinary research. Issues such as freedom of research, the variety of institutional profiles, the thematic diversity of each institute, the emphasis on internationalization, the participation of young researchers and the barriers that the IASs must overcome within the universities in which they are based have also been addressed.

However, according to most of the debaters, all these aspects are subordinated to the primary mission of the IASs: the research of key issues for the natural, social and human sciences.

To Eliezer Rabinovici, from the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton is an important parameter, "but one should not emulate it totally because each IAS reflects the academic culture in which it appears."

He hopes that the IASs that have arisen in various universities around the world do not end up being experiments doomed to disappear in 10 or 15 years. To avoid this, he said, universities should think of long-term activities and lay the basis for the IASs' perpetuation.

Rabinovici advocated an international participation of the institutes: "An IAS can be evaluated by the quality of its international participation and one of the ways to undergo a quality control is to expose, to be known by others and to meet them."

A strong international presence can also be a safeguard to certain risks that are inherent to the importance of the IASs, according to Rabinovici. One of these risks is to be controlled by groups with power in universities, drawn to it by the "ability the IASs have to become powerful tools in academia."

As for the role of interdisciplinarity, Rabinovici exemplified the case of his institute, of which he has been director: "Interdisciplinarity is not the goal; the goal is to study interesting problems."

Related material

The Future of UBIAS Panel discussion with directors and representants and IASs — March 11, 2016

The role of the institutes for advanced studies in the contemporary university according to Peter Goddard — March 11, 2016


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To Hisanori Shinohara, director of the Institute for Advanced Research (IAR) of the Nagoya University, the current academic trends give more emphasis on scientific applications, while his institute gives more importance to the fundamental questions of the natural and social sciences.

Peter Goddard, former director of the IAS in Princeton, has also participated in the panel discussion and agreed to Rabinovici's view that the IASs should be devoted to fundamental issues in science. As an example, he cited the work of a group at the IAS whose theme is the boundaries of immigration. "The group is not interested in providing guidance on how to deal with immigration, but in studying it in its fundamental aspects," he said.

The diversity between the institutes and their research topics was commented by Martin Grossmann, former director of the IEA-USP and a member of the Senior Committee for the Intercontinental Academia. As an example, he explained the profile of the Brazilian institute: "Sometimes people ask me why we are not forming future Nobel prize winners or why we do not discuss the reasons for Brazil not having a Nobel. The institute is inserted in USP's context and what differentiates us is to work with public policies, a very important issue for developing countries."

Still regarding the mission of the institutes, Goddard said that whenever he is asked to evaluate an IAS he questions whether they are doing things that can not be done in other parts of the university. "To serve as a funding mechanism or to provide additional income to some researchers is important, but this is not what an IAS should be," he said.

To Shinohara, one of the important things to which an IAS can help is to enable an environment of freedom for reflection and research. "We are always busy with classes, administration, meetings, among others. It would be great if we could provide a space with freedom, particularly to promising young researchers. Is it possible to provide freedom to scientists? At the Nagoya University this is a very difficult task."

Rabinovici agreed that this is another difficulty of the UBIAS and that, therefore, when a researcher enters their institute they must commit to stop teaching, participating in committees and getting involved in administrative activities.

Carsten Dose, general secretary of the Intercontinental Academia and moderator of the panel, said that universities in general are made up of people that respect each other, but when an IAS creates a possibility for some to have a freer activity this is seen as a privilege. "Granting privileges tends to lead to some envy in the academic environment."

Grossmann agreed with Dose's comment. He said that university administrators know how to think the university and would like to go on with it. However, they are constrained by the obligation of managing a large institution. According to him, in addition to managers, other members of the teaching body of the university see the IEA-USP as a privileged place since it has a light structure, no students or permanent researchers and a completely different atmosphere from what they experience.

Opening the discussion to the participants of the Intercontinental Academia, Shinohara asked them if young researchers should engage in interdisciplinary themes or focus on a specific field.

Philosopher Valtteri Arstila, from the University of Turku, said that before obtaining a PhD one should be devoted to a specific area. "I do not think anyone can do a good interdisciplinary work before doing a good job in a specific discipline."

The disciplinary restriction for postgraduates defended by Arstila is not shared by historian Kazuhisa Takeda, from the Waseda University. In his view, interdisciplinarity is a global trend and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science somehow encourages it to constantly improve their methods of evaluating research proposals by adopting broader criteria that involve close fields of knowledge.

Biologist Eduardo Almeida, a professor at USP, agreed with Arstila, but stressed that in Brazilian and American institutions there is a certain stimulus for undergraduate students to get interested in what is happening in areas different from their own. "However, this is difficult to do, because we receive a lot of information by e-mails, brochures and other materials. Maybe the IASs could help in this quest for knowing what is happening in other fields."

Competition in the disciplinary context was questioned by historian David Gange, from the University of Birmingham. He said that the most uncomfortable moment during the first phase of the Intercontinental Academia in São Paulo was when physicist José Goldemberg, professor emeritus from the USP's Institute of Physics and an honorary professor of the IEA-USP, advised the young researchers to be aggressive. "We are not competing against each other. If we think so, we will be contributing to the problems that universities increasingly face. As young researchers we must understand the university as well as understand our disciplines. And the only way to understand the university is being interdisciplinary," he said.

The discussion on interdisciplinarity is misconceived, according to Goddard, for whom the confluence of disciplines should always result from the topic chosen to study. "If a researcher wants to study the movement of people in the past they will need to involve biologists, study the information obtained in burials and understand the genetics of those people."

Hideaki Miyajima, director of the Waseda Institute for Advanced Study, agreed with the requirement cited by Goddard, but thinks that there are some risks in recommending young people to undertake interdisciplinary work, for "issues with this feature are difficult to identify" .

Shinohara argued that the IASs seek to connect areas of knowledge that are distant from each other: "There are numerous variations on interdisciplinarity in terms of distance between the research fields. This group at the Intercontinental Academia, for example, is quite challenging, but when talking about physics and mathematics these are relatively close fields. "

Dose said that everyone agrees with this view of Goddard, but what happens is an intersection of disciplines, careers and institutions, "complicating choices, especially for young researchers."

The situation is also difficult for the institutions, according to Dose, since "they have responsibilities both in the production of advanced research and in relation to young researchers, to whom they need to provide opportunities not found elsewhere in the disciplinary environment while establishing safeguards to follow not only one single path (even if interdisciplinary) and to stay disconnected from the disciplinary structure of the university."

The IASs need to deal with old and new academic and institutional challenges, as one can infer from the discussion. However, to Grossmann, the main issues to be addressed are related to "glocal" (global + local) aspects. "We have to worry about the challenges faced by our universities and how they correspond to global change," he said.

Photo: IAR/Nagoya University