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On 1 June the University of Amsterdam (UvA) formally launched its new Institute for Advanced Study (UvA-IAS). The new institute offers scholars a haven where they can tackle important fundamental scientific and societal issues, free from the boundary constraints between disciplines.

Photographer: Guida Morais e Castro Ermida

Working together, five full-time fellows from the UvA and elsewhere will conduct joint thematic research at the UvA-IAS. In addition, 10 associates from various departments will work on a regular basis at the IAS. Peter Sloot, professor of Computational Science and IAS scientific director, explains his plans to connect the fellows and associates with one another. ‘In order to encourage interaction between, say, a biologist, a sociologist and an economist, we will choose alternating research themes that are relevant to various fields.’ Sloot names ‘tipping points’ as an example, which is one of the institute’s two chosen starting themes. Tipping points play an important role in sociology, such as in regime changes like the Arab Spring, for example, but also in biology, in ecosystem changes and in phase transitions in physics. 

The second IAS starting theme is still in development and Sloot invites all UvA researchers to brainstorm and submit their ideas through the website. Researchers can also register their interest in a fellowship on the website. 

Pressing issues

The institute was designed to promote interdisciplinary research. Most degree programmes stay within the confines of a single discipline, while research funding is monodisciplinary as well as the evaluation. Yet the most pressing issues require knowledge from multiple disciplines, according to Sloot. ‘Take climate change, the issue of immigration and the financial crisis: all are themes that should be examined in collaboration with researchers from a variety of fields.’

Sloot can hardly wait until the first fellows arrive at the IAS on Oude Turfmarkt in September. ‘The contact between associates from different faculties generated lots of inspiration during the start-up phase alone. For example, we were quickly able to bring a physician, an anthropologist and a biologist together to respond to a call to deliver proposals for interdisciplinary study on the Zika virus. Such collaborative partnerships are valuable and the fellows will bring them back to their particular faculty after their period at the IAS ends.’

Nobel Prize Week

Sloot, co-director Anita Hardon (professor of Anthropology of Health and Care) and the Associates have ambitious plans for the UvA-IAS. In addition to the rotating group of fellows, the institute will offer a place for guest researchers and student recipients of the Amsterdam Excellence Scholarship. Sloot also wants to organise a ‘Nobel Prize Week’ once a year. His plan involves inviting Nobel Laureates to work alongside IAS researchers in tackling urgent interdisciplinary issues, such as mapping out the energy supply and demand of the future and contemplating ways to deal with future pandemics. The agenda also includes think tanks, knowledge cafes and a summer school. ‘I’m very proud that the UvA is now taking this step’, says Sloot. I am also fully confident we will be able to realise our ambitious plans together with those who have affiliated themselves with the UvA-IAS already and those who will join us soon.’

The UvA-IAS has renowned scientists on its Scientific Advisory Board: Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the IAS at Princeton, Helga Nowotny, former president of the European Research Council, and Bertil Andersson, president of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and former chief executive of the European Science Foundation. The institute is also overseen by a Board of Trustees, whose members include Amsterdam Mayor Eberhard van der Laan.