Knowledge isn’t something that belongs solely to the realm of science, states philosopher Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens

Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens is a economist, a university professor of philosophy and Lector of Transdisciplinary Education Innovation at Codarts and Erasmus University Rotterdam. On 10 September she participated in the Arminius debate on the complex role academic knowledge plays in the public domain. She advocates a humble attitude, especially if you want to get something accomplished. "I believe a critical eye is crucial for a university that wants to create an impact."

"I heard this week that I’m to receive the Umbra Erasmi medal in recognition of 25 years at Erasmus University!" She started off as a student assistant at economics, and she now works at the School of Philosophy. And for one day a week she’s a member of the Council for Public Health and Society: "I’m there in the role of philosopher. How do you raise problems to a higher plane of abstraction and reduce the differences by doing so?"

What are you currently working on?
"Over the past few years, I’ve been quite involved with the Rotterdam Arts & Science Lab (RASL), a joint initiative of EUR, the Willem de Kooning Academy and Codarts. We already had a Double Degree programme, but we’re now setting up an educational innovation and research programme. We’re doing this because we believe that if you blend knowledge from arts and sciences, this produces other perspectives for looking at social issues."

What does art add to academic knowledge?
"Academic disciplines are extremely method-driven, while art doesn’t work with the concept of reproducing something. Instead, it’s about building something new. The principle in art, where you go and design an entirely new process, could be interesting for science. It’s what we now refer to as a transdisciplinary approach. You start from disciplines, but we go on to forge something and leave those disciplines behind."

"The principle in art, where you go and design a new process, could be interesting for science.'

How would this look in practice?
"It’s still a little uncertain, we just launched a new minor a few weeks ago. In terms of research, a doctoral candidate is investigating the role of art forms in academic education while another doctoral candidate is studying the inclusion of vulnerable groups as a source of knowledge. A third doctoral candidate will focus on the assessment of transdisciplinary educational practices."

Are you challenging the boundaries of what is considered scientific?
"Yes. I’m not saying that scientific methods should be abandoned. What I am saying is that knowledge isn’t something that belongs solely to the realm of science.
The doctoral programme studying vulnerable groups is being conducted by a doctoral candidate who has an education background in both arts and sciences. We want to see if obtaining a doctorate and art is something that can be combined. In fact, it’s an experiment, because it extends beyond institutional constructs."

Is that your answer to the question of how we can bring academic knowledge to the public: by breaking through constructs and disciplines?
"Breaking through constructs is important because this produces another kind of knowledge. In many scientific studies, the subject has to appropriate to the method being used; otherwise, the research isn’t considered to be a source of knowledge: this is an understandable and at the same time an exclusionary mechanism. We want to say something meaningful about complex problems, problems that are unique and not reproducible?"

How do you think that can be done?
"By expanding the classical methods with more complex methods. The way it works now is that you don’t have to justify why a statistical method is used, as the method has already proven itself. If you decide to develop your own method, you have to give a step-by-step explanation of why you’re making certain decisions. We’ll acquire more methods that can be used just once, but at the same time they will be very well explained and reproducible. This way, you would still be able to conduct research on complex, unique issues."

"Research can serve as a source of inspiration, not as a blueprint."

Is there any controversy or is there resistance to your project?
"We received a large European grant to offer and conduct research into the transdisciplinary minor we’re now offering with the RASL and four European partners. We’re not just randomly experimenting. I think it’s really important that colleagues also take a critical look at what we’re doing. We want to create something, but we want to do it while respecting the academic tradition of justifying your research."

Do you look at your research with a critical eye?
"I think that’s important. If only men were scanned, are the findings applicable to women? Psychological research is often conducted on groups of students, a group that is easy to find here. But is that applicable to the entire population? In fact, I believe a critical eye is crucial for a university that wants to create an impact. If you want to have an impact, you have to take a close look: who are we involving in our research and who we are leaving out? That’s something completely different from looking at your publications or scores."

What you’re actually saying is this: to create an impact, you can’t just conduct research and throw it out into the world. Would you rather say: we studied a small sample group so this only applies to a small group?
"Yes. I’m all for being humble, with a base of support. This is what we know, this is something we may not know yet. If we conduct research on Rotterdam Zuid, we can’t do this without the people in Rotterdam Zuid. And the findings of this research might not apply to New York. Research can serve as a source of inspiration, not as a blueprint."