25 Jun 2019   |   Network Updates   |   Update from KU Leuven
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Leuven Institutes: a promising organisational format for interdisciplinary research


The Academic Council has approved the format and the application procedure for the so-called ‘Leuven Institutes’. By bringing together researchers and resources from various disciplines, these Institutes will help to promote one of the key priorities in the KU Leuven Strategic Plan: interdisciplinarity.  

“All this didn’t come out of nowhere, of course,” says Rector Luc Sels. “Interdisciplinary research has been an important form of scientific activity for quite a few years already, and our University has several excellent examples of this approach. With the establishment of the Leuven Institutes, we are now paying explicit attention to interdisciplinarity, and we’re also providing the necessary building blocks within the organisation.”

“We’ve already created a new project category in the Special Research Fund for Interdisciplinary Networks (ID-N). We have made it possible for faculties and departments to appoint staff together. Recently, we’ve also developed a framework for interdisciplinary doctorates. The establishment of Leuven Institutes is the logical next step in this process.” 

Protected name

The Leuven Institutes are meant to encourage the large-scale pooling of expertise and resources across disciplinary boundaries, says Rector Sels. “By giving them a recognisable, unambiguous name, and by using a simple, conspicuous organisational format, a framework in which interdisciplinarity may thrive. For the University, the Leuven Institutes are a way to highlight certain focal points in research – a strategic instrument, in other words. For the outside world, they’re a recognisable contact point for a specific area of research. And for the individual researcher, they are a form of recognition, a signpost towards organisational security, and a kind of intellectual home base – alongside the faculties and departments, which, of course, will continue doing their work unabatedly and keep playing an important role.”

“The term Leuven Institute is not random or without obligations. Each Institute will be recognised and, therefore, protected. You can only use the term when you’ve received approval. This means you cannot decide unilaterally that you and your colleagues will henceforth be called Leuven Institute XYZ.” 

"For the University, the Leuven Institutes are a way to highlight certain focal points in research – a strategic instrument, in other words." - Rector Luc Sels

“We want each Leuven Institute to meet several criteria before it gets to use the official designation. For one thing, it needs to have a certain scale. You can’t simply cast your individual research work in the format of a Leuven Institute, even if you happen to work in two research fields.” 

“The groups don’t have to be huge, but we will aim for a certain minimum. How many people? It’s difficult to express that in university-wide hard figures, but I think that ten to fifteen ZAP would qualify as a good amount.” 

“There also needs to be an identifiable interdisciplinary approach. The goal is not for research centre X, which has been doing great work in a certain field for many years already, to become a Leuven Institute all of a sudden. Instead, a Leuven Institute is interdisciplinary by definition. By the way, to be clear: no one is obligated to become a Leuven Institute. Anyone happy in their current situation, doing great work without being interdisciplinary, will be given every opportunity to keep doing exactly that.”

Simple procedure

“We’re now launching an open call without a deadline,” says Rector Sels. “We have developed a two-step application procedure. First, an ad-hoc panel assesses whether an application has enough potential to go to the second round. Why is the Institute necessary? What are the possible themes or lines of research? Which research entities will be taking part? What makes the Institute interdisciplinary? If the first application is approved, a more elaborate application may be submitted to the Executive Board via the Group Executive Committees and the Research Council. A research plan is an important element of that second part, as is the administrative and financial situation of the Institute. If your application is approved after the second phase, you can start calling yourself a ‘Leuven Institute’.”

“In theory, the start of the Leuven Institutes will not involve a lot of money being set aside or sought. Can that work? I think so. You can’t make each initiative dependent on new money. If we’d only be able to develop something new if we had a big pile of money to go with it, a whole range of initiatives aimed at a better pooling of resources and expertise would become impossible. I would hate to see that happen.” 

“The Institutes are expected to be self-supporting after the start-up phase. Therefore, the financial benefits of establishing an Institute are limited to seed capital. For instance, funding will be available for a postdoc who can help develop the Institute as a research manager. This three-year funding can be renewed once. Money can also be made available for limited administrative support.” 

“The establishment of Institutes does not mean that the faculties and departments will have to make sacrifices. Besides, the Institutes bring together groups that have already proven to be very successful when it comes to acquiring funding and projects.” 

“Other important benefits of a Leuven Institute are to be expected in terms of image and visibility. The Leuven Institutes show the outside world that we’re very strong in certain fields, across disciplinary boundaries. But I also see a great advantage in the creation of more synergy. Working together on joint lines of research will lead to more depth in our research and to better answers to the societal challenges of our times.”

Examples

The concept of an institute is, of course, not entirely new. “We already have several organisations that could easily qualify as a Leuven Institute,” says Rector Sels. “Think of the HIVA Research Institute for Work and Society, for instance, or the Rega Institute. Some other obvious examples: the Leuven Statistics Research Centre, the Leuven Cancer Institute, and the Leuven Brain Institute. These institutes can be considered for recognition as Leuven Institutes.” 

“Other, smaller initiatives can continue doing their important work in the familiar way. This also applies to existing faculty and interfaculty centres, including the Interfaculty Centre for Agrarian History. There will be no pressure to become an institute, scale up, or broaden one’s activities to include other disciplines.” 

“In any case, there are many options for Leuven Institutes. Off the top of my head: I’m sure there is potential in heritage and conservation, for a centre with archaeologists, geneticists, geologists, historians, and engineers. Or think of sustainability: Leuven Sustainable Earth could consider broadening its scope to include other disciplines. Specific pathologies could also form the backbone of an Institute, with room for physicians, but also for engineers specialised in digital imaging, medical technology, digitisation, you name it. There are plenty of possibilities in the humanities as well, of course.”

No building

“There’s one more thing I’d like to clarify,” Rector Sels concludes. “An institute is not a building. We’re not going to redesign the Leuven skyline. This is about a new, recognisable, inspiring way to organise important interdisciplinary scientific work, not about new buildings. Perhaps new buildings will be an option one day, when an Institute is extremely successful, but it’s too soon to talk about that now. At this point, we believe that new Institutes will not lead to new buildings. In my opinion, we already have plenty of opportunities to explore this new form of organisation.” 

This communication was first published 24 June 2019 by KU Leuven. It was written by Ludo Meyvis and translated to English by Katrien Bollen.

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