A Cutting Edge Academy

“The Intercontinental Academy will act as a laboratory for future university-level collaborative work. It is a small-scale project, but has the potential to bring about a new format in higher education.”

This is the expectation of Martin Grossmann, director of the IEA, for the Intercontinental Academy of University-Based Institutes for Advanced Study (Ubias), a network of 33 university institutes of advanced study from around the world.

The pilot project for the Academy being developed by the IEA (São Paulo) and the IAR (Nagoya) was first presented to a wide audience at theAdvanced Research in Nagoya conference held at the IEA on February 15. The keynote lecturers were the chemist Susumo Saito and the economist Dapeng Cai, both full-time IAR fellows.

The event comprised two parts. In the first, Saito talked about the best practices adopted by the IAR to develop high-level research with global impact (see box). In the second, Cai expounded the concept and operation of the Academy, which were defined on the morning of the same day, in a closed meeting of the two scholars, the IEA board, members of research and curator groups at the IEA, and representatives from the Office of the Vice-Dean for International Relations.

The concept of Academy
The proposal to found the Intercontinental Academy emerged at a meeting of the Ubias Steering Committee held on March 2012 at the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, in New Delhi, India. On that occasion, the IEA and the IAR were invited to assume responsibility for the pilot project of the initiative, which will work as a joint venture, as Cai defined.

According to the economist, the concept of this Academy may be summarized in the expression “2+2+2+2”: two Ubias, from two continents, coming together to organize a joint research that will be carried out over the course of two-year period, during which two workshops will be held.

The idea is to promote scientific exchange between generations, disciplines and cultures. To this end, 15 young researchers will be selected from various universities around the world and from different areas of knowledge to engage in collaborative, interdisciplinary studies under the guidance of three senior scientists – Nobel laureates or others with similar distinction – who will oversee the activities.

This group will keep in touch during the two-year project and will meet twice in month-long workshops – one in São Paulo, scheduled for March 2014, and the other in Nagoya, planned for March 2015. In these two immersion meetings, the researchers will have the opportunity to share experiences, participate in intercultural activities and social programs, and discuss their research topic in lectures, readings, seminars and debates.

According to Cai, this type of initiative is very important because “university research is overly focused and specialized, and researchers fail to share languages, do not relate to other fields, and forget how to communicate with each other.”

The economist noted that the Intercontinental Academy will be guided by three goals: to stimulate joint research among Ubias members; to establish cooperation networks among the next generation’s scientific leaders; and to explore new forms of collective academic practices and new formats of scientific training, collaboration and dissemination.

Grossmann noted that the term ‘academy’ may have a pejorative overtone, since it is used to refer to the body of great names in science who admittedly generated quality knowledge, but were uncommitted to transforming prevalent thoughts. “However, in the sense used at the Intercontinental Academy, the term refers to a cutting edge environment, an experimental space for discussions, risk-taking and fostering unexpected encounters,” he stressed.

The selection process
Three senior international fellows, chosen by Ubias’ members, will be responsible for selecting the group of 15 young scientists. Each Ubias member may appoint up to three young candidates, researchers with postdoctoral degree or working as assistant professors. According to Cai, the idea is to bring together the best young minds from around the world and from various disciplines to think through solutions to global challenges.

The senior fellows will also propose which will be the Academy’s research program. The IEA and the IAR suggested as underlying theme the various senses and meanings of “time,” comprising the physical, social, literary, historical, artistic, biological and other points of view. As a sub-theme, they recommended the circadian rhythm, a topic studied by Takao Kondo, current director of the IAR, i.e., the biological oscillations of living beings over the 24-hour cycle of day and night.

The role of the hosts
The hosting institutes will act as a secretariat, assisting in the selection process, providing the necessary framework for academic activities, organizing social and intercultural programs for Academy members, bearing the costs of the three senior fellows, and helping find accommodation for the young scientists.

In exchange, the IEA and the IAR will have the opportunity to put the university community in touch with this select group of researchers, and to oversee the choice of the three senior fellows, the young scientists and the research program according to the needs of the region and of the university that will receive them.

The next steps
Dealings on the pilot project for the Intercontinental Academy will continue at the meeting of Ubias directors: Modeling the Future: Navigating in a Changing World, to be held in Israel on March 4 through 6, at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

At this meeting, the concept of the Academy proposed by the IEA and the IAR will be presented to the other Ubias members, who will help define and detail the theme of the research program. The process to select the researchers will then begin, to be finalized in September during an Ubias conference to be held in Vancouver, at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia.

After the process to select the researchers is completed and the research theme chosen, the group will have six months to prepare for the first workshop in São Paulo.


The governance structure of the IAR comprises a director, three deputy directors, two full-time researchers (both of whom attended the event) and a four-member Steering Committee. 

The Institute’s academic nucleus boasts 11 prominent scientists, including four Nobel laureates: the founding director of the Ryoji Noyori Institute (Chemistry, 2001), Toshihide Maskawa (Physics, 2008), Osamu Shinomura (Chemistry, 2008), and Makoto Kobayashi (Physics, 2008). 

According to Saito, one of the Institute’s guidelines is to promote exchange between generations, bringing together experienced researchers (such as those from the academic nucleus) and others in the early stages of their career.

Among the missions of the IAR is ensuring the independence of young scientists, thus fostering the development of new staff for the University. 

The chemist also stressed that the IAR seeks to provide a productive research environment by organizing lectures, seminars and informal meetings where researchers from different fields may dialogue and discuss issues of common interest.