March 27, 2009

Daily Report – Day 4 – Thursday, March 26

“The risks are worth taking”

Alex Quintanilha

Today in the hometown of the Brothers Grimm (Kassel), scholars from around the world took some risks. They grappled with “Promoting Intellectual Risk-Taking Under Conditions of Globalization”—the focus of Task Force Three.

The blustery, occasionally rainy morning started with a high-risk, high-drama report from Task Force. They displayed their acting skills through three skits illustrating real-life dilemmas confronting doctoral students and faculty. The skits captured the interpersonal dynamics and emotions of how and when to pursue various types of research—or not. See it all on video:

Highlights of the subsequent Task Force draft findings:

  • Intellectual risk-taking is not an end in itself; it is a means to foster innovative, potentially transformative research. It is also a way to prepare doctoral graduates to respond flexibly to change in rapidly changing times.
  • An unresolved debate: is it advisable or worthwhile to encourage doctoral students to take risks in their research—such as studies that have not been tried before, have a high chance of failure, and/or are nontraditional or outside the mainstream?
  • Research funding agencies should develop a reward structure for innovation that accommodates experimentation and occasional failure—which ultimately can bring some researchers closer to success.

Task Force 3 description:

Two experts provided additional input to the work of Task Force Three:

Reinhard Jahn, Director of Abteilung Neurbiologie at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen.

Alex Quintanilha, Director of the Institute for Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of Porto, Portugal; Former Chair of the External Advisory Group of the People Programme at the European Union

Highlights from Jahn’s presentation:

  • “Risk taking is a mandatory prerequisite for transformative research.”
  • Of all the prize-winning research papers he has reviewed, he estimated that about half considered to be incremental were later seen as more transformative and substantive in advancing disciplines.
  • Interdisciplinarity is inherently risky—yet essential to production of new knowledge. Doctoral students may have inherent advantages to achieve interdisciplinarity in research because in general they are less encumbered with the disciplinary restrictions and norms faced by faculty.
  • Key issues for intellectual risk taking in doctoral education, among others: supervision of students; taking care to “distinguish between risky doctoral research and bad science.”

Highlights from Quintanilha’s presentation:

  • “Understanding risk and communicating risk brings different domains of knowledge together. We need to do this.”
  • Sustainability in intellectual risk-taking requires support from many directions. It is not enough for universities alone to foster intellectual risk-taking, “…we need to create societies that value imagination and creativity, and that will promote these ideas in a forceful way.”
  • “You should encourage a variety of training programs that evolve and change with the times, the needs of students, and the needs of society.”
  • He cited recent societal commitment to higher education in Portugal, in particular a funding model that rewards graduate students directly, allowing them to choose doctoral programs (rather than funding students indirectly through universities.)
  • He strongly encouraged pilot projects in doctoral research that engages risk taking. “By allowing different, small experiments everywhere, we can find at least some that work.”

Many questions and answers and a panel discussion followed. The input from the expert commentators informed the work of Task Group Three as it refined its recommendations for intellectual risk-taking. The day ended with a great deal of intense group directed at the climax of the workshop: final reports and recommendations from each of the Task Forces on Friday morning.

The dinner speaker was “Experiences with the German Excellence Initiative” from Hans-Jürgen Prömel, President of the Technical University of Darmstadt and a member of the Forces and Forms network.