Helga Nowotny—Plurality, Diversity and Transdisciplinarity as Leitmotif for a Successful Scientist within European Science Policy

by Eleonora Windisch

Helga Nowotny
Chair of the European Research Advisory Board Professor at ETH Zürich

Brussels, Belgium

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

photo credit: Dominique Meienberg


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Intellectual curiosity, the refusal to be "boxed in" and the drive to constantly exceed academic boundaries, are terms often used when describing Helga Nowotny. Indeed, these characteristics seem to accompany her throughout her career like a literary leitmotif. In an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist (Dialog & ex/Change), Prof. Nowotny describes herself as having "always been fascinated by what lies on the other side of a boundary." Even today, she says, she "can't accept boundaries," which she finds "arbitrary, authoritarian and negative." Helga Nowotny harbors deep suspicions about the "idea of having reached a 'final' position, insight or attitude." She thrives in processes that are incomplete "because they leave a lot of possibilities open."

A look at Professor Nowotny's career path confirms that she has "always lived in more than one [academic] world" and that a "single discipline" was never quite enough for her. A native Austrian, she received her doctorate in law from the University of Vienna, followed by a Ph.D. in sociology from ColumbiaUniversity. She concluded her postdoctoral thesis in sociology at the Universities of Vienna and Bielefeld. Her teaching and research experience took her to Vienna, Cambridge, Bielefeld, Berlin and Paris. In 1974, Helga Nowotny was nominated Executive and Founding Director of the EuropeanCenter in Vienna, a UN-affiliated intergovernmental organization that focuses on social welfare. In addition, she was elected chairperson of the Standing Committee for Social Sciences of the European Science Foundation, a position she held for seven years. In 1996, Prof. Nowotny became Professor of Social Science at the renowned Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Helga Nowotny's quest for a truly transdisciplinary approach in science research gained further momentum in 1997 when she became director of a newly founded center for the dialogue of the sciences, the Collegium Helveticum. At the Collegium Helveticum individuals from all scientific fields along with representatives from the arts gather for an informal exchange of ideas with the aim of promoting mutual understanding between the natural and technical sciences and the humanities and social sciences. "The exciting thing about this is that thematic strands start to form almost of their own accord, cutting right across specific fields and thus open to being developed from many different points of view," says Nowotny in Dialog & ex/Change. Nowotny believes that the way universities function today is becoming increasingly obsolete.
The interaction between society and science is a fascinating theme for Nowotny. In her 2001 book Re-Thinking Science, Nowotny and her co-authors focus on the processes in which society and science are engaged. According to Nowotny, the unprecedented level of education of societies today, together with the "pervasiveness of modern information and communication technology, the realization that the production of uncertainty is an inherent feature of the co-evolutionary process mean that society is moving into a position where it is increasingly able to communicate its wishes, desires and fears to science." It is the result of this reverse communication that she tries to tackle in the book.
Venturing beyond academia
Helga Nowotny is not only known for her outstanding intellectual achievements as a scientist and a manager within the academic world, she is equally well regarded for her contributions to science policy. During last year's ceremony for the John Desmond Bernal Prize, which was awarded to Helga Nowotny, Rob Hagendijk of the InternationalSchool for Humanities & Social Sciences in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, praised Professor Nowotny's advisory work within the European framework. She has worked with the European Science Foundation for many years championing a new agenda in social research. Her longtime advisory work was fully recognized by first being nominated chairperson of the newly created European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) of the European Commission in June 2001 and then by being unanimously re-elected for a second three-year term in June 2004.
The Board is made up of representatives from the sciences, the private and public sectors and academia with the goal to advise the Commission on research policy. EURAB's main agenda items for its second term are the Seventh Framework Program for Research and Technological Development, the mid-term evaluation of the preceding framework program, and the creation of the European Research Council (ERC), among others. "Another pressing issue which comes to fore, especially within the overall context of the Lisbon and Barcelona Declarations, is the question of how to make the overall European climate more investor-friendly and to promote a more entrepreneurial spirit," says Nowotny. However, Nowotny realizes that these are tricky issues since they touch upon state aid rules. She says EURAB nonetheless is willing to explore the idea of whether a SBIR-like (Small Business Innovation Research) mechanism common in the U.S. could also be introduced in Europe. Another important issue for EURAB's second term will be the regional aspects of research and innovation. The recent enlargement of the European Union will allow EURAB to find ways and means of tapping into and enhancing existing regional potentials. When asked about EURAB's greatest challenges, Nowotny identifies the need to "invest in research and innovation." It is a "collective bet on the future", she adds, one "in which we are all committed to in different ways."
As a member of the European Research Council Expert Group—the ERCEG was set up in 2003 upon the recommendation of the European Council of MinistersHelga Nowotny is thus dually involved in the creation of a ERC. The establishment of such a council is geared toward enhancing Europe's competitiveness vis-à-vis the U.S. and Japan. Europeans "must begin to see themselves increasingly as Europeans with a common cause," says Nowotny, if they want to remain competitive. Nowotny strongly advocates the removal of administrative hurdles at national levels and particularly addresses the need for a "transformation of European universities." "Throughout Europe, there is clear recognition that brakes of a political, financial, and administrative nature on universities have to be removed," says Nowotny in Science (Vol. 305, Issue 5685, 753 , 6 August 2004). "Cultural mindsets will have to change if Europe wants to maintain the present momentum." However, Nowotny does not want to see "cultural mindset" being confused with "cultural practices" per se. She feels that "culture matters," in that "culture is a way of doing things and attributing significance or value to it." European society must "strive to develop a culture of research, that allow research to embed itself into a wider society among different circumstances and in different social milieus." Competitiveness can be interpreted in many different ways too, she adds. The challenge, however, will be "whether we can reduce 'competitivness' to its bare economic bones or whether we can invent a new culture of competitivenessa culture which also matters to us," Nowotny explains.
For its second term, EURAB will not only address a series of political challenges but also will face a new commissioner for research. While outgoing Commissioner Philippe Busquin was often described as "the commissioner who listened," Nowotny hopes his successorMr. Janez Potocnik is expected to assume his new position in November 2004will become "the commissioner who connected." According to Nowotny, there are three main connections that need to be achieved. "Research policies should connect with other policies as well as with innovation," she says, "and both research and innovation should connect closer to the aspirations and awareness of the citizens in Europe as well as raising awareness among researchers of the societal dimension of their work."
EURAB's first term was extremely successful. The board achieved its goal of having scientific and technological advance recognized as one of the objectives of the Union in the new EU Constitution. However, in a June 2004 interview with CORDIS News, Helga Nowotny considered the board's biggest achievement getting industry and academia work together. Realizing that EURAB still had a long way to go, Nowotny decided to stay on for EURAB's second term. She believes that there are interesting and challenging times ahead for EU research policy. Now that the Board is being listened to, she wants to ensure that science and technology receives its fair share on the EU's agenda.

Related links:
Collegium Helveticum: http://www.collegium.ethz.ch/
European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) - http://europa.eu.int/comm/research/eurab/index_en.html
European Research Council Expert Group (ERCEG) - http://www.ercexpertgroup.org/
European Science Foundation - http://www.esf.org/
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interview with Helga Nowotny. In: Dialog & ex/Change - http://www.btgjapan.org/dial_01.html
Helga Nowotny: European Research Momentum. In: Science, Vol 305, Issue 5685, 753, 6 August 2004.
Helga Nowotny, Peter Scott and Michael Gibbons: Re-Thinking Science. Knowledge and the Public in an Age of Uncertainty. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2001.
Helga Nowotny:The Potential of Transdisciplinarity - http://www.interdisciplines.org/interdisciplinarity/papers/5/version/original