Sometimes you have to go a long way to find something new – but it’s worth it. I was in New Zealand last week for four days and one of my tasks was to present a keynote address to the runninghot! Conference. The Conference was organised by two groups of early and mid-stage career researchers, the Oxygen Group and He Waka Tangata, with the explicit aim of mixing together the sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities together productively and fostering dialogue between them. I know – we’ve all heard that ambition before. But what was remarkable about this conference is that it was working. People from very different backgrounds mingled together quite happily without the usual tensions and petty snobberies that can typify attempts to bring different branches of knowledge together, all in the name of producing more innovative work.
Why did runninghot! work when so many like-minded enterprises fail? I think there are two main reasons. One, and the most important, was that it was organised by early and mid-career researchers who are less likely to have hang-ups and more likely to be interested in things because they’re interested in things. They have maximum enthusiasm and minimum cynicism. Second, at the same time, the conference had high-level backup. Not only was the Ministry of Research Science and Technology involved from the start, but ministers turned up. Heads of research funding bodies turned up too. All kinds of sponsors were attracted. It was clear that the researchers’ ideas were being taken very seriously indeed.
It’s called investing in the future, but I wonder how often we really do it.
Of course, the naysayers will say these were special conditions. New Zealand is a smaller community. Perhaps it has less disciplinary hang-ups. But I think runninghot! could be a kind of model. Let early and mid-stage career researchers really take over an event but give them high level backing. That way lie new connections and the beginnings of real inter-disciplinary efforts, which do not even have to think of themselves as such.
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