TIAS and Other Stories by Martin Cloonan

Hello and welcome to the TIAS/TCSM blog.

Martin Cloonan Professor Turku Institute for Advanced Studies

I’m delighted to have been asked to write something for the first blog. Having been asked, it seemed to me that it might be appropriate to write something about the role of Institutes for Advanced Studies (IASs) in the modern world and how the Institute I direct, TIAS, contributes to that. In order to do this, it is necessary to say something about the origins of Institute for Advanced Studies and the ideals which they embraced. So, I need to start this blog with a bit of history.

The first Institute for Advanced Studies was established in 1930 in Princeton, USA. Idealism was present from the start as the founders believed this IAS should be concerned with the advancement of knowledge purely in and of itself. Instrumentalism was to have no place. The ideals which underpinned this Institute were wonderfully articulated by it first director, Abraham Flexner in an article published in 1939, just as the world was about to be enveloped in the horror of the Second World War. At this time of extreme international crisis, Flexner begins his article explaining the rationale for having an IAS by posing a question:

‘Is it not a curious fact that in world steeped in irrational hatred which threaten civilization itself men and women – old and young – detach themselves wholly or partly from the angry current of daily life to devote themselves to the cultivation of beauty, to the extension of knowledge, to the cure of disease, to the amelioration of suffering, just as though fanatics were not simultaneously engaged in spreading pain, ugliness and suffering?’ (Flexner 1939: 544).

He continues: ‘From a practical point of view, intellectual and spiritual life is on the surface, a useless form of activity, in which men indulge because they procure for themselves greater satisfactions than are otherwise available’ (ibid).

At times of grave international crises, it might be tempting to argue that what is needed is instrumental knowledge of a sort which might help to solve such crises. However, Flexner is clear that the production of such knowledge can only every be a by-product of IASs, never their reason for being. So he then goes on argue that the main driving force of academic enquiry should be not be potential utility but simple curiosity:

‘Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity and the less they are deflected by considerations of immediacy of application, the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest’ (ibid: 545).

To support his argument Flexner looks examples such as the invention of radio, electricity, various developments within mathematics, the work of Einstein, bacteriology and industry. Flexner suggests that key developments in all these places and more came via simple curiosity, exploring one’s interests as far as possible. He further argues that the same is true in the arts.

Flexner also says that: ‘I am pleading for the abolition of the word “use,” and for the freeing of the human spirit’ (ibid: 548). He calls for ‘spiritual and intellectual freedom’ (ibid: 549) saying that:

‘An institution which sets free successive generations of human souls is amply justified whether or not this graduate or that makes a so-called contribution to human knowledge’ (ibid: 550).

Thus, Princeton sought to be a place for freedom of thought and the pursuit of academic purely in and of itself. Flexner says that he told one visiting Harvard professor “You have no duties – only opportunities” (ibid: 551).

Flexner wrote that: ‘We cherish the hope that the unobstructed pursuit of useless knowledge will prove to have consequences in the future as in the past’ (ibid: 552) and proclaimed that the Institute ‘exists as a paradise for scholars who, like poets and musicians, have won the right to do as they please and who accomplish most when enable to do so’ (ibid: 552). Underpinning this was not simply a belief that academic should be free to do this, but only be being in such a sate can real change be made. According to Flexner: ‘Learning as such is cultivated. The results to the individual and society are left to themselves’ (ibid: 551).

So, Princeton set the standards for IASs pretty high. The idea was that they should be places of contemplation and the pursuit of knowledge in and of itself. Any contribution to wider institutional goals should come more by accident than by design and should certainly not be a central aim. It is salutary to note how much this jars with a world in which universities are driven more and more by Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). Indeed it is hard to imagine what a KPI for a ‘paradise for scholars’ might look like, although I would suggest that it is perhaps not one which fits easily in the corporate plans and mission statements which are the hallmark of the modern university

The first academic personnel began work in Princeton in 1933 and it was soon home to a number of Jewish refugees who had fled from Nazi Germany, of whom the most famous was Albert Einstein. It consisted of Schools of Mathematics, Humanistic Studies, and Economic and Political Studies and comprised a mixture of permanent and temporary staff. It now has 4 Schools: Mathematics, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences and Historical Studies (www.ias.edu) and has been said to have secured ‘a position that is unrivalled in the world of science and scholarship’ (Wittrock 2003: 1)

Princeton was to prove to be a highly influential model and since its foundation a number of Institutes for Advanced Studies have formed. The second was the Centre for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, which was established in 1954 at Pala Alto in California with finance from the Ford Foundation. In 2008 it became part of Stanford University (https://casbs.stanford.edu/) In 1968 came the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research (ZIF) in Bielefeld (www.uni-bielefeld.de/(en)/ZiF/). This was followed in 1970 by the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study (NIAS) at Wassenaar (https://nias.knaw.nl/).

In 1985 came the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study in the Social Sciences (SCASSS) which 10 years later became a permanent institute for advanced study chartered by the Swedish Government. Today it is perhaps the closest thing which the Nordic countries have to a Princeton model and offers a range of fellowships (www.swedishcollegium.se).

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s, came a new impetus towards establishing IAS in eastern Europe, the first of which was the Collegium Budapest, founded 1992, heavily influenced by the Princeton model (https://rio.jrc.ec.europa.eu/en/organisations/collegium-budapest). The IAS movement has now gone global and since the 1990s IAS’s have developed across the world including ones in Africa, Asia and Australasia and Latin America.

It can be observed that these IAS’s range from what can be seen as the idealistic form embodied by Princeton to much more pragmatic ones which seek to boost the reputation of their host institution. As Padberg has noted in some European countries there were IASs which ‘are closely involved in the excellence strategy of their respective university’ and ‘part of the reputation race’ (Padberg 2018).

There also exists a rather bewildering range of international groupings of IASs such Some Institutes of Advanced Studies (SIAS) ,(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Some_Institutes_for_Advanced_Study), the , University Based Institutes for Advanced Study (www.ubias.net),

NetIAS (http://www.2018-2019.eurias-fp.eu/about-us), a European Network of 23 IASs’ which runs the EURIAS Fellowship programme (http://www.2018-2019.eurias-fp.eu/) and the European Consortium for Humanities Institutes and Centres (ECHIC)s (http://www.echic.org/). Padberg’s 2018 research on IASs across the globe suggested that they were characterized by a diversity of missions, models and strategies.

Meanwhile back in Finland, in addition to TIAS there are IAS’s in Helsinki and Tampere Collegium for Advanced Studies. The Helsinki Collegium  was founded in 2002 and ‘is an independent institute of the University of Helsinki with a mission to be a top-class, international and attractive research environment in humanities and social sciences’ (www.helsinki.fi/collegium/english/about_the_collegium/index.htm). In Tampere, the Institute for Advanced Social Research was also established in 2002, as the University of Tampere Centre for Advanced Studies (UTACAS). It says that it ‘conducts advanced research focusing on society, provides a productive research environment and facilities for researchers, and promotes multidisciplinary research and international interaction. (www.tuni.fi/en/research/institute-advanced-social-research).

As for TIAS, we were founded in 2008 and span the faculties of Economics, Education, Humanities, Law and Socials Sciences.  We fund postdoctoral (within 5 years of passing) and Collegium (mid- to early- career) researchers to undertake dedicated research projects over a three-year period. In addition to salary our Fellows receive an annual allowance of 3 000 Euros towards their research costs. We issue periodical Calls for researchers to join us, with the next Call due to be made in spring 2020. Competition for places can be tough, with success ranging from 1.8 to 5.4%.  Our last Call attracted applications from 78 different countries.

Our work spans the range of pragmatism and idealism. TIAS was established to boost the University’s research profile and outputs – and we do. In 2017 our researchers published over 80 peer-reviewed publications and a similar amount of conferences papers and undertook a diverse range of impact activities (https://bit.ly/2OSWPLs). We host a lecture series in the Turku Main Library (www.utu.fi/en/research/research-collegia/tias/events/lecture-series) and also host regular events which are open to the public (www.utu.fi/en/research/research-collegia/tias/events). We are developing closer links with our colleagues in Helsinki and Tampere and aim to do more of this. We also work alongside our colleagues in the Turku Collegium for Science and Medicine. Over the years we have produced 10 professors and 10 adjunct professors, who are now able to keep in touch via our Alumni Network (https://www.utu.fi/en/research/research-collegia/tias/alumni). So, in our modest way, we think that have much to be proud of.

Another characteristic of IAS is a commitment to interdisciplinarity. Our regular TIAS meetings are the focus for this, but it is also evident on our public events and Visiting Scholars scheme (https://www.utu.fi/en/research/research-collegia/tias/visiting-scholars) which seeks to attract visitors of professorial standing who work across disciplines and can mentor our researchers.

We also cherish internationalism. When TIAS began in 2008 all of its 10 researchers were Finnish. Today around a third of our Fellows are international. The Director of Princeton’s IAS, Robbert Dijkgraaf, has said that ever since the Institute’s foundationour scholars have been selected on the basis of their ability alone and with no regard to race, creed, or gender’ (Dijkgraaf 2017). This has to be true of TIAS as well. We are now working with the Scholars at Risk network and hope to offer places for such scholars from 2021 on, emulating the work of our colleagues in Tampere.

More generally, it’s hard to escape the feeling that IASs’ are rather unique places in the academic world. Often outside of formal departmental and faculty structures, to an extent they are like young children trying to find their way in the world, while also being guided in certain directions. Some aspire to idealism, some appear nakedly instrumental. In reality nearly all of them are mixtures of both. At their best they offer three I’s – inspiration, interdisciplinarity and internationalism, all underpinned by a fourth “I” – idealism.

As TIAS takes its place in the array of IASs, we do with some idealism still intact. We offer academic freedom while also promoting Interdisciplinary Research Excellence and internationalism. We seek to attract the academic leaders of tomorrow and to give them the support that they need to do the sorts of research that will lead to high level careers. While we sometimes see the need to be pragmatic, we like to aim for the stars.

So, welcome to our blog, please keep reading and if you want to find out more about TIAS please get in touch or follow us at @TIAS_UTU.

Thanks for reading.

Martin Cloonan

Director, TIAS

October 2019


Dijkgraaf, R. 2017. “Letter from the Director: IAS response to Executive Orders restricting travel and immigration”, Institute Letter, Spring, p.3
Flexner, A. 1939. “The usefulness of useless knowledge”, Harpers, 179, pp.544-552
Padberg, B. 2018. “Global diversity of university based Institutes for Advanced Studies”, conference paper given at UBIAS conference, Sao Paulo, March.
Wittrock, B. 2003. “A brief history of institutes for advanced study”. Uppsala: SCASSS.

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