On Saturday 24 November 2012, the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Study (USIAS) has been formally launched. At the Opening Conference, distinguished speakers from the USIAS external Scientific Advisory Board reflected on the importance of enabling truly original research and of providing space for reflection and intellectual experimentation, both of which is needed within the current research system.
In his opening words, President of the University Alain Beretz reminded the audience that USIAS should not be seen as an ivory tower but as an asset for the whole university. USIAS is open to anyone who has a truly original high quality idea, and USIAS fellows will be part of the University, working with different groups and labs from the whole range of disciplines on campus, enriching the University in a direct way by their presence. He pointed out that the word “usias” is the plural of the Latin word “usia” which means substance, essence, and the institute USIAS indeed aims to help research to come closer to the essence of things, by rewarding new perspectives and enabling truly explorative research.
Professor Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program, outlined the challenges of creating an environment in which researchers can truly work on the “frontiers of knowledge”, and emphasised the importance of an international basis for the new Institute for Advanced Study in Strasbourg. Science is international, but its institutions are national or even regional, and many countries in Europe are still rather inward looking in their orientation.
If research is excellent, this does not mean it is necessarily innovative. Path-breaking ideas in research often are born in a propitious environment, where creative individuals with different backgrounds meet regularly and can freely exchange their insights. Drawing together the like-minded, such places become “creativity magnets”.
The experience of the European Research Council (ERC) and of the Human Frontier Science Program shows that, although difficult, it is possible to identify and fund research that is truly at the frontiers of human knowledge. It may be challenging to recognize original ideas, but the step before this – to create a place where new ideas are born rather than merely recognised – is even more ambitious. Good ideas are, in fact, extremely rare, to quote Einstein: “I've only ever had one”.
See the full text of professor Winnacker.
Professor Roger Guesnerie of the Collège de France sketched the problem of intellectual “lock-in” which may be generated by the rapid development of research, particularly in the field of social sciences and economics. Frontiers in modern economic research have multiplied, but at the same time progress inside each front is less and less understood by outsiders, even if they are relatively close, from neighbouring subfields.
A “balkanisation” of knowledge exists also in the natural sciences, but it may be more of a problem in an economics (or social science) context, as social action requires all dimensions of understanding. When, for instance now in the times of economic crisis, the question concerns systemic stability, not only of the financial system, but also of the economy as a whole, the need for synthesis of different partial viewpoints is paramount. An Institute for Advanced Study can have a very important role in offering the opportunity for taking distance and providing relevant synthesis, particularly in disciplines such as economics.
View the slides of Professor Guesnerie.
Professor Thomas Krummel from Stanford University pointed out that often what is needed is not to try to find new things, but to look at known things with new eyes; and that good ideas often come from unexpected, unconventional sources and situations, so it is important to have an open attitude. In the words of Louis Pasteur: "Fortune favors the prepared mind". He also emphasized the importance of not finding what one expected, because it can be the beginning of exciting new insight in a phenomenon. It is this mind-set of intellectual risk-taking that USIAS should hope to identify, facilitate, and stimulate in researchers.
Good ideas do not necessarily emerge in classic research situations. Interaction with researchers from other fields and with people outside of research is crucial for inspiration. And, as Louis Pasteur and many others have shown, being application-oriented is not at odds with getting at the “essence” of things; on the contrary the wish to address real-life problem is a tremendously creative drive that often leads to very fundamental new insights.
View the slides of Professor Krummel.
Professor Louis de Saussure of the University of Neuchatel showed that at the very basic level of communication there are many factors intrinsic to the use of language that complicate understanding, and are a barrier to gaining true access to other people's thoughts, ideas and knowledge. This poses a challenge particularly to interdisciplinary research, as different disciplines tend to have their own “language”.
Language is a field of study for which the collaboration of different disciplines is crucial. Linguistics is a traditional example of interdisciplinarity in the humanities, and is also the key element in the foundation of both structuralism and cognitive science. The grand interdisciplinary challenge of today is to open the doors between the natural and the human sciences, and to establish meaningful connections between the different bodies of knowledge in these domains, in both directions.
For this, a certain attitude is necessary among researchers, who should not only simply do their research but also be able to reflect on their research at the meta-level, understanding the philosophical and epistemological dimensions of the knowledge they produce. This ability is a crucial condition for truly interdisciplinary research, and an Institute of Advanced Study should have an important role in creating and nurturing this ability.
USIAS professor Jean-Marie Lehn closed the conference with a few thoughtful remarks, emphasizing that USIAS will be an integral part of the University of Strasbourg, as interaction helps new ideas to emerge and blossom.
Professor Thomas Ebbesen, the Director of USIAS, announced the 16 first USIAS fellows.