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‘I miss the fieldwork on the ships’

The corona crisis has had a major effect on research. Sarah de Rijcke, Professor of Science and Evaluation Studies, and her group research the effects of performance evaluation on the work of ocean scientists. The majority of the fieldwork was supposed to be carried out on ships and at marine labs throughout Europe.

Which research in particular was underway when the crisis began?

‘I’m currently leading FluidKnowledge, a research project with ERC funding. We’re researching how ocean scientists deal with performance evaluation, with requirements and expectations about conducting excellent research and with being of use to industry and the economy, and how they contribute to solving climate problems. The question is what this all means for their everyday work, how they decide what to prioritise and the consequences of this.’

How is the corona crisis affecting the research?

‘We have had to make an about-turn. For the most part, the research consists of fieldwork on ships and at marine labs in different countries, such as the Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Scotland. It’s unclear when we’ll be able to do this kind of work again, or if we’ll be able to carry out the project in this way at all. Working from home is particularly challenging for our PhD candidates from abroad who haven’t had the chance to build a social circle here.’

All of the meetings are online. That also applies to the Boardroom Coaching programme from the Talent naar de Top organisation. Rector Carel Stolker is one of the coaches. De Rijcke is at the bottom right of the screen.

How can the work continue in part at least?

‘Much of it is fine online: meetings, quick video calls with one another. We are now working entirely through Microsoft Teams, and that’s going really well at an institutional level. But fieldwork is essential to my research and I definitely miss it now. What I also miss is being able to have a quick chat in our institute kitchen, which gives you the opportunity to talk to people you don’t work with directly on a daily basis. The contact has really changed and that definitely creates opportunities, but for  the social side it’s really debilitating.’

Do you also see opportunities for a different type of research in these extraordinary times?

‘The ERC team and I are developing new methods, for instance virtual ethnography instead of fieldwork. We are now studying two marine institutes remotely, and from the first analyses new insights are emerging, despite the setbacks. We are also creating maps of the development of ocean science based on big-data analysis. This is all perfectly possible remotely. But we do hope to be able to travel once again sometime next year, so that we can observe ocean scientists in their everyday work.’ 

Are you managing to combine working from home with online teaching and family?

‘My institute provides courses for professionals and that means less pressure than large-scale teaching for students. What is more, we have our own specialised IT staff who are providing great support. As regards the home front, because I also have management duties, much of the homeschooling of our seven-year-old son has fallen to my husband Vincent. His work does suffer every now and then.’

What do you expect of ‘the new normal’ in the area of research?

‘I think that a good two months down the line is a bit soon to be able to answer that properly, but I certainly hope the government won’t cut research funding. Now more than ever is the time to invest in a long-term vision of the role of universities in and for society. And universities should continue to train people who are able to explain topics and who can continue to bolster the societal and political debate with their expertise.’

Do you have any tips for colleagues about doing research in this limiting situation?

‘Think above all about the social side of remote research, particularly as a manager. Now you no longer bump into each other in the corridor, how will you replace that pat on the shoulder or that casual question about whether your colleague is alright? Online work can become somewhat instrumental, and that has its advantages and disadvantages.’

Banner photo (Pixnio): Sarah de Rijcke’s research includes the work of ocean scientists who study jellyfish.
Text: Linda van Putten

Sarah de Rijcke is Scientific Director of the Centre for Science and Technology Studies (CWTS). She studies the development of science and technology in relation to societal, political and cultural factors.

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