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Seasons of Interdisciplinarity

The Seasons of Interdisciplinarity are an initiative by the Young Academy Leiden that started in 2021.

There are many scientific themes with high interdisciplinary potential that early career scholars at Leiden University are working on, but the scientific (and university) infrastructure is often rather insular.

The idea behind the Seasons is therefore to create bridges that connect these islands, so that we can find each other more easily, learn from each other, and create interdisciplinary synergies. Scientific challenges are complex, and individual perspectives often limited.

Interdisciplinary collaborations are a wonderful way to address this limitation, and we are confident that science is not only better, but also more fun as a cooperative team effort.

Fall of Misinformation

This fall, the Young Academy Leiden turned the spotlight on the spread of misinformation, a topic of great current concern. From external influences on elections, to the spread of ungrounded worries about vaccination or the rise of conspiracy theories, misinformation is on all our minds. The scientific community may play a special role here, not just in understanding what seems to be a complex social, psychological, legal and epistemic phenomenon, but also in reflecting on our own practices as academics.

Much is done at Leiden University on the topic of misinformation. Researchers are covering different aspects within multiple disciplines, trying to find each other when needed, and offering reflection on our approach to science communication. In many ways, research on misinformation at Leiden University strikes us as quite a success-story of interdisciplinarity and outreach, from which there is much to learn about the feasibility of decentralized and loosely connected research structures that emerge, bottom-up, from the interests of researchers and pressing developments in society.

During this Fall of Misinformation, you will be able to read four brief interviews, showcasing the work of Ionica Smeets, Mark Leiser, Suzan Verberne and Alexander Pleijter. We hope these interviews can help us think about what might be needed from us academics, from within our disciplines, across disciplines, and when reaching out in our science communication. Perhaps, in this way, readers might be moved to join this line of research or tap into this existing research network at Leiden University.

Prof. Ionica Smeets works on science communication, studying why scientific results get blown up in the media. Misinformation is sometimes created intentionally but, at other times, it starts from a misleading graph or an exaggerated press release. Outreach is key, but can be unhelpful if done poorly. In this way, her work bears directly on the way we researchers communicate. Prof. Smeets also shares her experience doing interdisciplinary work, discussing the channels she uses to finding collaborators and the obstacles one faces.

One naturally looks to legal and regulatory frameworks to help combat fake news and other forms of misinformation. Dr. Mark Leiser works on misinformation from a legal perspective. After discussing the factors that contribute to the prevalence of misinformation, such as Web 2.0 and our consumption of user-generated content, Dr. Leiser discusses the current state of regulatory pushback, the need for holistic legal frameworks and for looking beyond his own discipline, to cognitive and social psychology, for a better understanding of what measures might be most effective in pushing back.

Dr. Suzan Verberne studies the algorithms that social media platforms use to decide what content to show on someone's newsfeed. Social media plays an important role in the spread of misinformation. These platforms have a commercial incentive to farm engagement and this has had the tendency to push up toxic information on our newsfeeds. Besides the algorithms that cause the spread of misinformation, Dr. Verberne shares her thoughts on the use of automatic news classification that could perhaps help detect misinformation.

 You can read our interview with Ionica Smeets here, our interview with Mark Leiser here and our interview with Suzan Verberne here.

Spring of Big Data

Eye-opening experiences in the YAL Policy Hackathon

This season, the Young Academy Leiden dived into questions raised in the context of Big Data. We did this by means of an engaging Big Data Policy Hackathon for early-career researchers at Leiden University on Friday 18 June 2021 part of the Seasons of Interdisciplinarity.

Three stakeholders posed real-world challenges that were discussed in three groups to find potential solutions as well as think outside the box.

After a short introduction, the group gathered in breakout rooms, where stakeholders were able to present the challenge in more detail as well as share potential datasets for analysis.

One group looked at the challenge of the Dutch Suicide Prevention Hotline (113) and helped with finding factors that would predict the staffing of the hotline during different times of the day based on other (external) events. The group was able to identify interesting patterns around peaks in calls and gave input on potential factors, such as seasons, holidays, advertising of the hotline as well as news about celebrities or social media.

The second group focused on the issues that the municipal The Hague Housing Inspection Bureau (HPB) is facing when it comes to supervising the condition and use of all existing buildings in the city. In the discussion it became clear that the city currently relies on enforcement mechanisms that are based on information that has limited reliability, such as noise complaints. In this context, the group discussed technical solutions to pre-empt dangerous situations, such as overcrowding, through a combination of temporary sound and motion sensors with information on building age, height and material as well as past complaints. The conversation also highlighted that there is an opportunity to make more use of non-technical, face-to-face interaction at certain points, such as registration with the city for the social security number and making use of neighborhood initiatives already in place to reach out. Finally, the group suggested putting emphasis on employers and building owners to be responsible for abiding by regulations around living conditions and safety, as migrant workers, for example, are highly dependent on them due to language barriers as well as the duration of their stay.

The group around the challenge of how to use and understand usage data from Brightspace was able to gain insight into an aggregated and anonymized dataset to find ways to use the data to support students and lecturers in successfully completing a course. The focus was on taking stock of which activities are being recorded (and whether this is informative), how usage is linked to other indicators of performance as well as ethical issues around the use of such data. This also led to a discussion of how this data might be able to complement student evaluations as well as using the platform more extensively for prompts around deadlines and reading feedback – especially for big classes where lecturers have a hard time following up with individual students.

These findings and discussions were presented in the plenary where questions from the whole group sparked new ideas for future conversations and, as one stakeholder said, more ‘eye opening’ moments. This Policy Hackathon was only the beginning of a longer-term engagement as email addresses were exchanged and findings will be sent out to each of the stakeholders.

Summer of Sustainability

This summer, the Young Academy Leiden dived into matters of sustainability as part of our commitment to interdisciplinary thinking about the great challenges facing the world today. We are motivated to make sustainability a priority in teaching and research, and we wanted to contribute to the already important work that early career scholars are doing, across Leiden University and beyond.  

As an academic community, we critically reflected on 'our' place in sustainability-related issues. We focused on questions like What is the role of research and education for 21st century challenges such as the climate crisis or the COVID-19 pandemic?How can we, as an academic community at Leiden University, contribute to Sustainable Development Goals?; and As individual scholars, how can we incorporate more sustainability in our private and professional lives? 

In the week of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) action days, we organized a playful yet informative SDG Roadmap event. On 22 and 23 September 2021, sessions were held in which participants explored the SDGs and reflected on how we can contribute to these goals at Leiden University. We used the SDG Roadmap developed by  De Koers as a tool to actively work with the SDGs and come up with ideas to make sustainability concrete and tangible in an academic context. The gathered input and established connections will provide a basis for us to explore opportunities and collaborations to bring about meaningful change within the university. 

Further marking the Summer of Sustainability, some of our members shared their reflections in a blog post on Voices of Young Academics. Coming from different disciplines, they discuss their personal experiences with the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to rethink our work practices such as fieldwork, attending on-site international conferences and workshops, and in-person international collaborations. 

During this season, our efforts also went into developing an Honours impact challenge  on sustainability for Bachelor and Master students. This education project involves a collaboration with the Citizen Science Lab and the Honours Academy, and kicks off later this autumn. As part of this hands-on challenge, students will contribute to municipal plans for redesigning and transforming the area around Leiden Central Station into a more sustainable location. In collaboration with Leiden locals, students will investigate topics like air quality, mobility, green spaces and waste management and come up with a series of recommendations. Stay tuned! 

Finally, we joined an advisory panel as part of ALLEA's project on climate sustainability in the academic system. The project aims to develop a proposal that supports the transformation of academia to meet the challenge of climate sustainability without compromising on excellence in research and without diminishing international exchange and collaboration. The core working group is set to convene at several times throughout the year, with one of our YAL members offering consultation and expertise at different points in the process.

At YAL, we will continue to pursue conversations and collaborations on sustainability beyond this ‘season’

Upcoming Seasons

In 2021, there will be one more Season of Interdisciplinarity:

  • Winter of Mental Health

More information on the upcoming season will follow soon. 

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