Yesterday, I attended a very interesting and inspiring seminar where professor Ingemar Ernberg, department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology at Karolinska Institutet, was the invited guest. The seminar series is called “summer talks” and covers not only science but other fields as well. So far, it has been held in Lövstabruk, a really tiny place in the northernmost, forested part of Uppsala county, Sweden, once a week during the period June-August each year. It’s a local initiative mostly for members of the Cultural Association in Lövstabruk. The theme for all the talks this year is “Academic leadership at the boarder of knowledge” and Ingemar focused especially on what is needed to establish a creative academic environment. As usual, Ingemar got about one hour to present, whereafter we all had a small soup dinner. During the second hour the audience discussed the presented content with Ingemar.
Ingemar began by discussing the three main tasks of the University; conducting research, teaching and sharing knowledge with society. He highlighted several times that research should be the foundation in that the other tasks should be based on it. Research should be the university’s engine so to speak.
He then went on to discuss what is needed, in terms of academic leadership, to make an environment facilitating the creation of new knowledge (which could then be used in e.g. front line education and expanding scientific fields). Of course, creative people are needed but a research environment that enables the researchers to fully make use of this creativity is also very important. A good academic leader builds a research environment where the researchers can blossom, which in turn gives the academic environment creative injections. It is of utmost importance that such an environment is inspirational, enables focusing and that it supports engagement and motivation.
Two words that were especially highlighted by Ingemar were creativity and flow. Creativity is of course a prerequisite when conducting research, especially at the boarder of what is current knowledge (the “adjacent possible”). Flow is a kind of mental state in which you are fully emerged in a task not caring about anything else, or even space and time. E.g. if you are writing an article, and happen to enter flow state, writing can go on for hours, provided you have the inspiration and an environment which is e.g. free from interruptions. Creativity and flow are definitely connected and it is easy to understand why it is of importance to enable both creativity and flow in a research environment.
This is where Ingemar mentioned a problem that many universities struggle with today – they are run more and more like government agencies. There are as a consequence many rules and procedures and an overall increasing administrative burden on the employees. Such circumstances do certainly not support creativity! Related to this Ingemar showed a rather simple scale with “Order” and “Chaos” at opposite ends. He believed that the academic leadership should be in pursuit of an environment somewhere in the middle of the scale. Of course we cannot have an environment where everyone does what they want and no one checks what is going on (total chaos), but we should not have an environment where everything is controlled in detail either. Today’s problem is that many research environments are getting closer and closer to the order extreme on the scale. To enable creativity (e.g. bring in somewhat more “chaos”) we need to move away, at least to some extent, from the control structures and procedures of today.
Ingemar also brought up some specific success factors for academic environments. Some of these were:
- Encourage critical questions
- Tolerance for errors
- Courage to break paradigms
Ingemar did not only talk about academic leadership but also about knowledge in general. He showed a very pedagogic image, about different types of knowledge, which I don’t want to reproduce here due to copyright reasons. Anyway, I will try to explain the key points. Imagine a sphere including everything we currently know – thus, the results of all research conducted so far. This sphere is, of course, constantly increasing in volume at a forever higher pace due to e.g. that we know still more and get still better equipment. Learning from historical discoveries we also know that a small part of this sphere also contains incorrect knowledge. Enclosing the knowledge sphere is another, larger, sphere containing what we may call “the adjacent possible” – this is the new knowledge within reach by building on e.g. our current technologies and what we know today. At present, most researchers seem to work with research mostly within the knowledge sphere – hence not reaching very far into the yet unknown. According to Ingemar we need to build research environments which accept that more creative people conduct research outside this “comfortable” (and rather failsafe) sphere. Working in the unknown (but still reachable) is risky in many respects – most of the work performed here will fail and it is not uncommon that it can take up to a decade before any publishable results are achieved. Nevertheless, taking risks here can lead to very important and possible life-altering discoveries which can greatly advance the research!
The last part of the talk was devoted to leadership styles. I already mentioned the government agency style above. Another common leadership style is the enterprise style. Both of these styles do not really promote a genuinely creative atmosphere. Ingemar would instead like to see a third option which is based more on shaping creativity. How such a leadership style should be formed was discussed with the audience after the soup break but we did not really end up with a definite answer – I guess this calls for some digging into the adjacent possible…
I really enjoyed Ingemar’s presentation – I definitely see why he has now been invited to the seminar series for the fifth time! I really hope he shows up again next year. The basic idea with the seminar series is to let the public meet and discuss with influential people of different fields – thus it is an initiative that enables university researchers to fulfill the task of spreading knowledge. I think it is great that the participants (mostly from outside academia) get the possibility to interact with renowned researchers in this way, discussing important topics!