Last Anniversary Celebration of the Institute for Advanced Social Research, IASR: Christian Laes on Academic Freedom in the IASR

Academic Freedom in the IASR

How to explain to your friends and relatives what it means to get a Research Fellowship at an Institute of Advanced Social Research? Two full years of academic freedom, with no administrative duties, no courses to teach, no obligation to supervise students. Only concentrating on your own academic work. Isn’t this too much of a good thing?

If one tries to answer this question, one is easily caught in a trap. More specifically: the trap of accountability – a fetish of the culture of distrust that reigns all too often in present-day society. As an academic, you tend to answer that you are hard working, and for this you refer to rankings of publications, numbers of conferences given, perhaps even citation indexes. The science of or obsession with bibliometrics has been debunked more than once, also in the IASR, and rightly so. In other words, a defensive answer that merely refers to numbers and rankings completely passes over what actually constitutes the essence of working in an Institute of Advanced Research. When I look back at my 2014-2016 experience (two great years in my academic career) I would summarise the experience as follows. Free time to broaden your views and insights, in truly open, congenial and multidisciplinary discussions with colleagues from different fields and research traditions, on both formal (seminars) and informal occasions (the IASR has a marvelous living and reading room plus kitchenette). Hours of uninterrupted concentration on books or articles you always wanted to read but hardly managed to; long periods of writing out of what had been in your mind for so long. Time to accept invitations for talks in many different places in Finland and abroad. And last but not least: the experience of living a different country (or countries, if one counts the wonderful weeks in St Petersburg and Athens). I found Finland and Finnish academia a truly welcoming environment, and the experience has enriched my life more than I can describe in a few lines.

I fully realise that focusing too much on freedom and free time runs the danger of being labeled as a utopian. Yet, there are solutions for universities that fear the financial burden of running an Institute of Advanced Research. Select your fellows in an ambitious way and after a thorough process. By doing so, you’ll get the candidates that also (!) turn in the necessary publications for a good ranking. Make sure the fellows participate in specific programs of your university (in my case, I still cherish the memories of lectures given in an interdisciplinary series of lectures or seminars in the history department, where I had the exceptional pleasure of advising more than one highly motivated PhD student). And stimulate your fellows to apply for new and other major grants. There is no better moment than your research fellowship to think about an application for, say, an ERC Grant.

In the end, most of the research fellows do not require more than accommodation to work and their salary. Compared to sophisticated laboratories, the costs of such institution are relatively modest. This also counts for those running the institute. The IASR in Tampere only needed one coordinator, Miss Marjukka Virkajärvi. She was supportive in the best possible way, both for administration and all the daily joys of academic life. The IASR could perfectly do with one director. While many talk about academic freedom, Prof. Risto Heiskala is the embodiment of it. I have been extremely fortunate to meet such a congenial scholar, a true intellectual who trusts ‘his’ fellows for a hundred percent. With Risto, all collaboration happens in good spirit.

For many years, both Marjukka and Risto made a world of difference to all who attended the institute. Words are hardly enough to thank them. Together with all fellows, both permanent and temporary, I had the pleasure to know, I express the hope that the unique research tradition of Tampere may be continued, in one way or another. Preferably, in the same way.

Prof. Christian Laes
Full Professor of Ancient History, University of Manchester