In this month’s episode:
– UNU Rector David Malone‘s visit to Europe
– Board member Gabriela Dutrenit‘s situation in Mexico
– The latest plans for implementing our new strategy and branding
– A first few words on our ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’ teams
Listen to the audio above or see below for the transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.
HH: Hello and welcome to the pilot podcast of our new ‘Director’s Corner’. I’m Howard Hudson (HH), I run communications here at UNU-MERIT, and this is Prof. Bartel Van de Walle (BVW) with us for the first time here. Bartel, you’ve been leading the institute for just over a year now, and I thought it’d be really nice to hear first-hand what your priorities are each month. So we’re starting this podcast literally as a Director’s corner on the website, it’s going to be in audio and in text. It’s now 13 October 2021 and there’s quite a lot happening this month – can you talk us through, please?
BVW: Definitely, yes, and I’m happy to be speaking to you via this medium. This month is interesting for a number of reasons, so maybe I can start with some of the meetings I will have this month. Our UNU Rector is on a European tour. He’s in in Paris already as we speak, but then he will visit UNU-CRIS, our sister institute in Bruges. He will then visit The Hague. He’s unfortunately not able to come to Maastricht. And then he carries on to UNU-EHS in Bonn. So he’s visiting Europe for a number of reasons. The reason why he’s coming to The Hague is that we’re trying to set up meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And it looks good, we have a couple of really interesting meetings coming up within the ministry. And our common goal, the Rector and mine, is to really get our name out there so that they know of UNU-MERIT, so that they know what we’re doing. And of course, I will make use of the opportunity to see if we can get some funding for our programmes. So I’m very much excited and looking forward to these meetings.
HH: Also, we’ve heard that one of our board members, Gabriela Dutrenit, has been having some issues with her status in Mexico. Can you shed some light on that?
BVW: Yes, so first of all, for those of you who don’t know Gabriela, she’s a member of our international advisory board for UNU-MERIT. We have this international advisory board, which has a number of different people in there from different continents with different backgrounds and they advise us on the direction of the institute. They reflected on our strategic plan, they provided input, and they’re a very constructive and helpful body to reflect and exchange views on what direction our institute is heading. One of the members of that board is Gabriela Dutrenit. She is working in Mexico, and there the government is issuing a claim against some 30 well-known scientists in the country, claiming that there would have been some wrongful treatment of funding. That is at least my understanding of the situation. Of course, we don’t want to and can’t interfere or have any interference with that process. They should just take the legal course. But we want to stress that Gabriela is really a valuable member of our international advisory board, so we will take some initiatives and I think you, Howard, have been in touch with her, I have been in touch with her directly, and also Carlo Pietrobelli, who is one of our professorial fellows will organise a seminar on the way that scientists function in society. And I think that’s the important point here. Science is increasingly under pressure in a lot of places in the world. Scientists are not believed, straightforward for what they say. But they’re also sometimes threatened explicitly. You know that in the Netherlands, there is now within the VSNU, the Association of Universities, a new guideline on helping scientists who are threatened in their position. You remember COVID, there are a couple of scientists who are really attacked for their scientific views. It’s a very dangerous evolution. And we should do what we can to bring in our view on that and help where we can. So I’m very happy that we take responsibility in this as a UNU institute. And I’m grateful to the initiatives that you Howard and Carlo are developing him.
HH: Yes, that’s very important for us with Gabriela, who’s been a long-term, great collaborator with us at UNU-MERIT. So moving on now from just a monthly overview to the more long-term work that we’re doing: we’ve just come through a nine-month strategy process and now we’re transitioning to a kind of a new institute, a new organisation and management structure, and we have new ideas for a physical space, a ‘Hub’ behind the institute – can you flesh out those ideas a little bit for us, please?
BVW: Yes, this nine months of strategising was actually very fascinating. For me, as a new director of the institute, it was a really great way to learn more about what’s happening in the institute, how people felt about a lot of different things. And also to learn that what is going on in the institute is really fascinating, with a lot of really excellent activities in research, education and outreach. So it was an excellent way to put all of the pieces of the puzzle together – and it was a puzzle. There were a lot of things that we had to debate and discuss, where does it fit, how does it align, to find out why some things are different in different parts of the same institute. Part of the effort was to try to get an equal, level playing field. That implied that we come up with a new structure. We have now research units, and as of last week I started to talk with the different research units, together with the research unit heads. So we have three units in place. One is the new UNU-MERIT Graduate School, where we focus on education, training, capacity development, and want to guarantee the quality of all these programmes and make sure that they happen and that they are done in a proper way. The other two units are research units. One is on the Economics of Innovation, the other is on Public Policy and the Governance of Innovation. And these two units are of course the descendants of the MERIT institute and the School of Governance. And we want to really build them up as excellent research units within the Institute. There’s a third research unit that is being developed which is on Computational Innovation. You will shortly hear more about that within the institute. So that is something we’re going to build up. The research units and the graduate school form one unit, which we call the INSPIRE Institute, the Institute for Societal Policy and Innovation Research. And that is really the interface with [Maastricht] University. So we will use INSPIRE within the university to make clear that this is the place where people with a university contract enter UNU-MERIT. To the outside world, and everyone that we talk to, we will use UNU-MERIT, continue to use UNU-MERIT as a label, as a name, because of the recognition, because of the way that we are known in the world. You could imagine these units as vertical structures. And on top of that spanning horizontally, we have the UNU-MERIT programmes. And there’s a programme on Comprehensive Innovation. So comprehensive innovation is our leitmotif. That is what we do in the institute. And another programme is ‘The Hub’. And the Hub is really the place where all the interaction with external people is happening. So where we organise events, where we have roundtables, where we invite diplomats, politicians, policymakers to come to Maastricht and discuss with us, where students organise things, where we have experiments, where we have a lab, so I envision that as a very thriving, lively place where we do a lot of interaction with the outside world. As I said already at the strategy event, we are also eyeing the building that is behind us here, the information point for the city for the development here, the Belvedere as it’s called, and that’s a beautiful place. And I would like to be in there. So we’re having negotiations now, with the people that are currently occupying the building. And to see when we can move in probably gradually, and over time, hopefully, arrive at a full ownership. There is finally also going to come more news about branding all this because it’s quite a change. So we need to pay attention to how we brand ourselves to the outside world, and also internally, but you will hear more about that in the weeks and months to come.
HH: Finally just a few words on our new ‘Comprehensive Innovation for Sustainable Development’ teams. I’ve already started speaking with a couple of the team leaders. The idea is that they’re going to be bringing together the various threads of our research here in the priority areas that we want going forwards. Can you tell us a little bit more? I know it’s going to be Serdar, Sonja, Lili and Nanditha. Just a few words from your side, please?
BVW: Yes, four brilliant young people in the institute, and I’m so happy and excited to see that they take the lead in bringing comprehensive innovation to further fruition, if you want, because comprehensive innovation is a new term. We’re the ones who own that term for the moment. But it’s clear that we need to flesh it out, or better provide more meat to the bones. And we can have a lot of academic discussions on that, which are also necessary. But what I like to see is that we start to explore that concept of comprehensive innovation through some very concrete ideas and projects. So these four teams are the front runners in bringing more substance to that term. I’m very happy to see these teams started. One of the requirements of these teams is that they try to bridge beyond what we now call the research units. So we connect social protection with migration, we connect economics of innovation with the other activities. So they bridge already horizontally. And that is wonderful to see. And it’s also good to see the ambition and the enthusiasm of these four leaders of the groups. So I hope that this will develop into something that is really contributing to the essence of the work that we do here – in the comprehensive innovation agenda. So you will hear more from them. I believe you are already speaking to them, Howard. And I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen.
HH: That’s great to hear. I’m looking forward to speaking more with these internal trailblazers. Okay, so thanks again, and we’ll see you – or rather hear you – next time.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.
UNU-MERIT / H. Hudson & H.Pijpers; Pixabay / Skilsel