Spotlight Interview | Dr. Alessandra Arcuri

Being a researcher requires determination

Dr. Alessandra Arcuri

Associate professor International and European Law

‘I originally come from Italy and I studied law at La Sapienza University in Rome. I have to admit, I have not always known that Law was going to be my path. Looking back at the winding road of my career, I feel that I have slowly drifted and followed the gulfs of analytical currents; like a floating boat if you will. La Sapienza is a big university – I often felt like a small particle in an ocean of students. Although I was serious about my studies there, I felt something was lacking, as the teaching method was highly dogmatic. That was why I decided to do a LL.M. at Utrecht University, which turned out to be the cause of a big revolution in my life. Instead of learning things by heart, we were asked to critically think and analyze; it was a positive shock. That was the moment I really started to enjoy studying law. Today, I am convinced that law is one of the most exciting fields to study and I try to transmit this to my students. All in all I love this job.’

‘In 1999, I got the opportunity to do a PhD at Erasmus School of Law. My thesis was about the governance of catastrophic risks, created by human activity. Examples are the disastrous accident at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant or the 1984 factory explosion in Bhopal, India. My PhD was at the intersection of law and economics. At this crossroads, you try to think of the law as a system that gives incentives to people to behave in one way or another. If, for instance, you know that you are going to be liable if you are going to act in a certain way, then you will consider the external costs of these activities. If there is no liability, you might as well neglect those costs. That is how the law and economics perspective conceptualizes certain legal institutions; it can help to create tools to control and organize society in such a way that the costs of certain activities are taken into account by the actor, and steers action into another direction.’

‘The research I am conducting now has shifted towards the field of International Economic Law, which is extremely interesting, as it is key to understanding our ‘globalized’ society and it is at the forefront of the most important challenges of the 21st century. I study international agreements that are instrumental for the integration of markets at the global scale and at the same time have to deal with issues such as environmental and food regulation.  The more I engage with this field of law, the more I like it.’

Chlorinated chicken

‘When talking about international economic law, we are a talking about organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), or treatises like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Europe and Canada. Think for example of the debates on food safety that these partnerships inspired. A well-known and quite recent case, is that of chlorinated chicken. In America, chicken meat is bathed in chlorine in order to kill bacteria. An effect of this bath might be though, that it can cause people to fall ill.  People were afraid that American rules and regulations would substitute European rules and regulations, at the cost of our food safety. It is exactly in these types of cases my colleagues and I can help with our research. We can show the reasons behind the worries people have, and to what extend they are founded. It helps to pinpoint what is at stake and where the problems lie – it  adds a bit of precision to a debate that otherwise could go in any direction.’

Globalization, Science and Democracy

‘What is important to realize is that for globalization to work, we need to recognize each other’s safety standards and regulations. Many international agreements have thus resorted to science to settle conflicts about different regulations. This leads to an important part of my research focusing on the intersection of law and science on a global level. In our societies there are technical bodies, rather unknown, that can be politically very important. For example, there was a debate about the world’s most used pesticide: glyphosite (commercialized as Round-up). An international body that consists of scientists and that is related to the World Health Organization (WHO), stated that this pesticide can cause cancer while other bodies, such as the European Food and Safety Authority, denied the claim. My research tries to look at these bodies, that are pretty obscure, but that do have an influence on the decision making. In this context, I look at issues like: what is the type of authority these bodies exercise? What they do is actually never binding, but in the end, lawyers tend to follow these scientific bodies. So these bodies have authority - but how are they accountable? Can they respond in a court? How are conflicts of interest regulated?’

Accurate insights

‘A closely related issue is to know who has a voice and who does not. Who has the legal rights to challenge certain regulations and who has not. Who is marginalized and who is empowered in decision making processes where technical knowledge is necessary.  In the end, a lot is about how we think and make decisions, and indirectly also about what we want as a society – what do we think is important? Who gains and who loses? Of course, science cannot give you the answer whether you want to live in a certain type of society or in another – but science can help you to get an accurate insights on the problems we are facing. Legal institutions are important to design decision making processes that can be simultaneously science-based and inclusive, taking into the interests of different constituencies, particularly of the most vulnerable.’

‘By contributing – even in a small way – to the body of knowledge about such legal institutions, I feel I am doing something worthwhile. My research is nothing more than a grain of sand– but we know that all these grains of sand can grind a sophisticated machine to a halt - and establish change. Even the marginal changes in our field matter.  I think it is important to have a sense of contributing to a common project – what I am able to do, I can only do because there are so many brilliant minds around me, both here at the Erasmus School of Law and among my international colleagues. We should cherish this ethic of collective contribution to a body of knowledge that is not one-man made.’

Responsibility and determination

‘This job comes with responsibilities and with privileges. It is a true privilege to be surrounded by great intellectuals and to be able to study for all your working life. If you are considering an academic career, you should be aware of this privilege.  However, being a researcher also requires determination – the academia is a competitive world. That is why it is important not only to try to do what you love, but never forget to love what you do. You need to do something you love, as being a researcher is not something that stops when you leave your office. And doing research is not always exciting, or a piece of cake. There are also those days when a blank page is staring at you. When you fail (e.g. because an article you wrote is not the way you like, because a subsidy you applied for has not been awarded, etc.), and you feel miserable. It is then you need to make an effort and love what you do. In the end, when you have found something that you love to do, it will turn out that it is absolutely worth fighting for.’

‘On this note, it is worth mentioning that your working environment can be extremely important in this trajectory. What I think is unique about Erasmus School of Law, is the openness to change and to new ideas. You are not limited when you have a good idea – it really is the perfect environment for innovative and creative people. The university reflects the spirit of Rotterdam itself: extremely dynamic and interesting - so much is happening here!’


Name: Alessandra Arcuri
Function: Associate professor International and European Law
Doctoral thesis: Governing the risks of ultra-hazardous challenges for contemporary legal systems
Expertise: Publiekrecht, Risk Regulation, International Economic Law, Law and Economics
Current research: Mega-Regional Economic Integration & Human Rights  

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