Lancaster's global meeting of minds

January 6, 2006

Academics at Lancaster University are to be given the freedom to pitch ideas for year-long research activities in a venture modelled on a famed US institute associated with Albert Einstein, John von Neumann and Robert Oppenheimer, writes Tony Tysome.

Lancaster claims that its Institute for Advanced Studies is the first of its kind in the UK, its unique feature being an annual competition inviting academics to come up with proposals for a year-long research theme to be explored in conferences and workshops by leading scholars from around the world. The events are supported by £50,000 from the university, in addition to outside funding.

The Lancaster institute is modelled on the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in the US. Research will be organised around an annual theme, drawing on different disciplines in the arts, social sciences and management to tackle crucial contemporary issues with wide-ranging policy and intellectual implications.

Academics from Lancaster, the rest of the UK and overseas will be invited to spend weeks or even months at the institute, interacting with other scholars and developing ideas that could become the basis for research projects or new lines of intellectual inquiry.

The university spent £3.5 million refurbishing a building to create communal areas, offices and conference facilities designed to give academics time and space to foster fresh thinking.

Bob McKinlay, Lancaster's deputy vice-chancellor, said academics would be encouraged to make use of the institute during their research time or sabbatical leave. Formal links with institutions in India, Singapore, China, Poland and Canada will help attract overseas scholars to add international perspectives.

"These days there are many more pressures on academics, leaving them less time to think. What has been missing are attempts to create a formal point around which people can interact and exchange ideas," he said.

Lancaster's academic management committee has been given the job of sifting through suggested annual themes and choosing a "winner". In its first year, the institute will focus on the knowledge-based economy. Next year the theme will be regions and regionalism.

So far only Lancaster academics have been invited to nominate themes, but Professor McKinlay said the competition could be thrown open after next year.

American inspiration

The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton broke new ground when it opened in 1933, by providing professors the time and space to conduct scholarly work without the distractions of teaching or other duties.

Distinguished figures associated with the institute include Albert Einstein and John von Neumann, who were among the first creative leaders on its faculty, and Robert Oppenheimer, who became its director in 1947.

Founded with a gift from siblings Louis Bamberger and Caroline Fuld as a centre for graduate study, the institute later became a research centre for advanced study in mathematics and the natural and social sciences.

Today the institute provides residential and study facilities for about 150 visiting members who are admitted each year to pursue scholarly projects away from their home institutions around the world.

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