‘Trying to bring scientific ideals into practice’

Exploring transformative research with Joris Krijger
Joris Krijger

In the fourth contribution to our ‘Exploring transformative research’ blog series, we talk with Joris Krijger about his work for the Erasmus School of Philosophy and the Volksbank, where he combines experiences from practice with his research on the ethics of algorithms.

In an unconventional construction, Joris Krijger is working at two institutions in a hybrid role as part of a project on ethical principles in artificial intelligence. This way, Joris is working in both practice and academia: doing his PhD at the Erasmus School of Philosophy and working at the Volksbank as Ethics Officer. Having a background in philosophy, psychology and media studies, Joris is looking at how to operationalize ethical principles, such as fairness, explainability and accountability in specific data science contexts.

A hybrid construction

By his own initiative, Joris was able to secure this hybrid construction by involving a third-party research grant from SIDN. Despite good intentions from both the University and the bank, getting the project off the ground prove to be difficult. It was with the commitment and financial involvement of this third party that tipped the scales and convinced both parties of the idea.

“I mean, for me, it was an experiment as well, and I said that from the beginning: I'm not sure if this is going to give us any good results, but it's worth a try. I do feel there is something in this hybrid approach where we are embedded in practice, but also publishing academically about the experiences.”

So how does this work? Joris was given the freedom to distribute his time between the bank and the university in four phases. In the first phase of the project, he would be busy at the bank to get to know the people, the structures, and the processes of the bank. Towards the final phase of his PhD, which he is currently in, the focus has shifted to writing, researching and publishing about his insights from the practical experience that he is embedded in.

Transformative research

This hybrid construction of researching a topic while being embedded in practice is interesting from a transformative research perspective. Particularly, this manner of doing research challenges academic boundaries and offers opportunities for methodological and possibly theoretical pluralism. Moreover, transformative research is aimed at contributing to solutions for sustainability transitions, by knitting together insights from different disciplines and from beyond academia. In line with this, Joris mentions that this hybrid construction contributes to finding practical solutions:

At least for these sorts of topics, which are very new challenges – ethics and artificial intelligence and the regulations regarding artificial intelligence – it's all very new. I’ve noticed before starting, that there were a lot of frameworks, guidelines, principles, and articles on what organizations should do, but not on how to do it. And I think if you want to answer these sorts of research questions it’s valuable to actually be out there, so you get a great sense of the challenges they [the organizations] are facing and actually trying to bring these scientific ideals into practice”.

Joris believes that these sorts of constructions can become more valuable as the societal impact of research is becoming more important.

Of course, there were also challenges in working in this way. In the beginning, it was difficult to relate insights from the academic field to the experiences and processes at the bank. It also gave him the feeling that he could not keep up and do sufficient work or sufficient research: “The first year was a time where I thought I'm doing two jobs rather than one project, and I'm doing two jobs poorly, rather than one project very well”. After a while, things started to make more sense and Joris began to grow into his role “I was able to bring a new perspective to the field […] trying to present the insights from working at the bank and sort of being able to bridge the gap between academic writing and practice”.

Joris is motivated to do his research in a transformative way, because he sees this as the best way to have an impact:

“I try to motivate organizations to incorporate ethics in their structures and processes. And the only way to see if I'm successful is if the organization is actually using my approach. And to hear back from them on what they think about my approach. Because fellow scientists can agree, but if this is about making an impact, getting more sustainable organizations, more ethical organizations, I think it is very relevant to actually have the conversation with the people you're trying to have an impact on.”

Challenges in doing transformative research

  • Institutional barriers: As an unconventional project and approach there was quite some scepticism and red tape to overcome at the university” Finding and structuring the funding as well as creating the appointment of Joris as a PhD candidate was a struggle for Joris and his supervisors because it is such a tailor-made program. Not fitting in to the ‘standard template’ for PhD research made the whole organisational aspect quite a challenge. Something we’ve heard time and time again from researchers exploring new ways of combining practice and academics. A team within the university dedicated to these tailor-made projects, with the network and capabilities to help get these projects off the ground but also to mediate between university and external organizations, would be a major improvement to lower these barriers, Joris stresses. 
  • Missing out: I'm not keeping up with my fellow researchers because they have all the time to read articles, and I'm missing out on a lot of stuffI occasionally join a meeting with fellow researchers who of course see each other, either every day or once a week.” While Joris’ double role comes with unique opportunities, it does mean he has less time to spend on academic work alone. “It would be nice to have a couple of other people who are in the same situation.”
  • Time management: The timeline is very difficult. I noticed that once we had a sort of governance framework within the bank for how to ethically evaluate the algorithms they are using, it meant a lot of extra work for me to actually do the evaluation. This makes sense and is to some extent desirable. But for me to actually find the time to write the articles, to do some thorough research, to do the reading required, that was quite difficult. It is very hectic to find the time and space to write”

So what is next for Joris? A new unconventional plan for sure, entailing a parttime post-doc in a tandem or hybrid construction, because:

“I want to maintain the current energy and dynamic. It is a win win for the university and for the bank in this case. And it's a win for me because it gives me a lot of energy to be able to take theoretical experience into practice, or practical experience into theoretical writing”.

We hope you enjoyed reading this piece. It is part of our series “Exploring transformative research”. In a first working paper, DIT has started off drawing an ideal-type picture of what Transformative Research could mean. This blog series is meant to take a step back and to explore the many facets of transformative research in practice as well as to discuss and trace the changes necessary in universities and the academic system to enable such research. We are interested in questions such as: How are researchers doing research that addresses societal challenges and/or contributes to making our societies more just and sustainable? In which ways are they innovating the way research is done? What are they struggling with in doing so? Why are they doing transformative research and what excites them about it?   If you have a story to share about doing transformative research yourself, please reach out to the DIT Platform.

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes