Newsletter No 4 December 2011

The Amsterdam Global Change Institute: a next step for IVM

Frans Berkhout

fransberkhoutIn October, the Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM) celebrated its 40th anniversary with a day of reflection and story-telling by past and current members of the institute. From a small group of natural and social scientists brought together by the regional economist Jan Lambooy in 1971, the institute has grown into a vibrant and diverse community of researchers and teachers. One of the stories Lambooy told was about the naming of the institute, for which a new word ‘milieuvraagstukken’ (literally, environmental problems or questions) had to be invented, shows that sensitivities about use of the word ‘science’ are pretty much unchanged. The economists were unhappy about working in an ‘institute of environmental science’.

While the topics covered at IVM have changed – from studies of heavy metals and noise pollution, to research on nanoparticles and the governance of ecosystem services – many core features of the institute have remained the same. First, IVM has always sought to be pioneering, by addressing emerging environmental and sustainability issues with insights from a combination of academic disciplines. While the question about how to make disciplines work together remains a point of discussion in some places, at IVM it has been an everyday fact of life for 40 years.

Second, the early commitment to collaboration across disciplines created a special culture which has enabled scholars from different traditions to work together productively. A shared sense that this leads to excellent and useful science has inspired students and researchers through the years.  Third, IVM has always been quite pragmatic and business-like in the way it operates. Research has always been funded from outside and as a result IVM researchers have been entrepreneurial and good at managing projects. In times of financial stress within the university, this capacity to raise funding continues to give the institute a unique dynamism and resilience. What has changed is the increasingly international character of IVM students and researchers. Today, more than half our students are international and about one-third of our staff. Our aim is to become even more international in the years to come.

What then are the challenges for the next 40 years? I believe that the challenges remain the same: How to be pioneering and achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive and global market for ideas? How to create the right conditions for interdisciplinary collaboration? How to develop our scientific profile internationally? How to demonstrate our societal relevance? How to become a destination for great students and talented researchers?

But the means of achieving our goals must change with the times. At IVM we have worked with colleagues across the VU University, and now also with partners at the University of Amsterdam, to create a new ‘network’ institute, the Amsterdam Global Change Institute. The new AGCI was launched in June 2011 with contributions from the Mayor of Amsterdam, Eberhard van der Laan, the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, Robbert Dijkgraaf, and a keynote lecture on the role of social science in global change research by Diana Liverman.

The AGCI brings together a range of natural and social science departments doing environment and sustainability research at the VU and the UvA. The primary aim is to deepen and extend interdisciplinary collaboration, as a spur to scientific excellence and innovation. By offering the chance for new combinations of expertise, we will strengthen our capacity to be scientifically pioneering. By making a new commitment to collaboration across the disciplines, we aim to deepen the culture that fosters collaboration. By becoming bigger and wider in scope, AGCI provides a way to enhance the profile of our research and our ability to lead and participate in major new initiatives. A larger institute should be a more attractive partner for business and government, and have a greater capacity to work with societal actors in producing useful knowledge. A large global change institute bridging departments and universities in Amsterdam should also be able to compete for the best students and talent.

In January and February 2012, the first batch of six AGCI postdoctoral fellows will be starting their work in new interdisciplinary fields, ranging from vegetation modelling to global governance of sustainability. The new institute now has 3 years to demonstrate what it can achieve. An evaluation in 2014 will help us to decide what the next steps should be. The main question then, as in 1971, will be how to create a secure and dynamic setting for sustainability research and teaching here in Amsterdam.

Contact: Frans Berkhout