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Thinking outside your scientific box

How do you study complex disasters like a nuclear explosion or a natural disaster? Who can help unravel the legal knot that Brexit has become? The important societal themes of the present day call for interdisciplinary collaboration. Leiden scientists pitched their research at a symposium at Leiden University College The Hague.

It started with a seaquake and ended with an unprecedented nuclear disaster that had worldwide consequences. Wout Broekema and Maja Vodopivec examined the lessons we can learn from the nuclear disaster at Fukushima. Broekema is originally a public administration specialist; Vodopivec is a specialist in war and conflict research and Japan Studies. 'Are you missing a disciplin,' LUC dean Judi Mesman asked at the symposium on 18 June in The Hague. The team could use a 'disaster anthropologist' - and no sooner said than done; the audience immediately put forward a number of suggestions.  

Interactive symposium

Encouraging new partnerships is exactly what Mesman, professor of the Interdisciplinary Study of Social Challenges, wants. Aafter the symposium in The Hague, she delivered her inaugural lecture in Leiden. Major societal themes are often so complex that cooperation is not only inspiring, but - more importantly - absolutely necessary, according to Mesman. ‘Academics are still too often cloistered in their own little boxes.' That's one reason why she organises an interactive symposium twice a year where researchers from all faculties can pitch their research and create new partnerships.  

After the symposium Judy Mesman delivered her inaugural lecture.

Water researchers

The symposium on 18 June was a good start. Scientists studying water management presented their findings. Ecotoxicologist Thijs Bosker is studying environmental pollution and wants to spar with colleagues who have some experience with citizen science. His question is: how can you build a lasting relationship with locals who provide the much-needed data such as water measurements? The highly diverse group of water researchers - including Leiden legal specialists, anthropologists, archaeologists and biologists - are going to exchange expertise and explore how they can combine forces. 

International crime

Another good example is the scientists who are studying international crime. Archaeologist Amy Strecker is examiningthe destruction of cultural heritage, in particular by IS fighters in Syria. Strecker works together with legal specialists who exlore the legal options and with data scientists who help analyse enormous amounts of data rapidly online.  

Unravelling the Brexit knot

The expertise of data analist Shannon Stewart is also useful for legal specialist Joris Larik. He is studying the complex developments around Brexit. Hundreds of treaties have to be ditched. Steward can help chart the enormous amount of legal data visually so it is easier to handle. This kind of visual data, of which Stewart gave a foretaste at the symposium, can reflect different scenarios and perspectives. This is attractive not only for researchers, but for example also for politicians and journalists. The research still needs funding, but the audience are firmly in favour of it. 

Making recordings with drones or kites

Visualising the research subject also plays a role in many other projects. Using drone recordings, biologist Merlijn van Weerd will be discussing with inhabitants of the Philippines how the rainforest is changing. And that needs even less high tech. Cultural anthropologist Mark Westermoorland uses kites in Ghana to make photos of the landscape. He does this cheaply (by choice) so that residents themselves can also make recordings easily. After the pitches, the researchers had the opportunity for discussions with one another. The use of kites can also be a good idea for completely different types of research.

Major societal issues call for interdisciplinary collaboration, according to Mesman.

Seeking a shared vocabulary

Interdisciplinary cooperation offers many more, as well as some undeniable challenges, as the different speakers acknowledged. Particularly if the original disciplines are far apart, as in the case of pure science research and social and behavioural sciences. ‘It's not always easy to find a shared vocabulary,' sociologist  Daniela Vicherat Mattar commented. Her advice is: ‘Simplify and go back to basics.'

Text: Linda van Putten
Image: Monique Shaw
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