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‘Bless the mess’ and other tips for improving interdisciplinary collaboration

Have faith in others, embrace conflict and differences, take your time: these are just a few of the tips that emerged during a Leiden symposium on interdisciplinary collaboration on 1 February. A second session will take place on Thursday 14 March.

What practical steps can we take to strengthen interdisciplinary collaboration at Leiden University? That was the main theme of the first of three sessions on interdisciplinarity. In plenary sessions, the participants received information on the university’s ‘Kiem-Groei-Bloei’ plans (central university funding for interdisciplinary projects) along with insights from the outside world on interdisciplinary collaboration. But it wasn’t just sitting around listening to others: the participants got to seek out new collaboration partners during speed dates. And in another session, researchers discussed the practical dos and don’ts of interdisciplinary collaboration.


Sicco de Knecht, head of research policy, kicked off the symposium with an overview of the plans concerning the Kiem-Groei-Bloei programmes, a university instrument to consolidate interdisciplinary collaborations.

‘Kiem’ grants, with a maximum of 10,000 euros, are meant as seed grants to start interdisciplinary initiatives. ‘Groei’ puts emphasis on training and developing skills for interdisciplinary education and research. Bloei grants are meant for further developing existing interdisciplinary programmes that can be part of the university’s external profiling. The exact ‘Kiem Groei Bloei’ planning is currently being established.

Then archaeologist Angus Mol, who successfully applied for a Kiem project called Minecraft in Marokko, shared his thoughts on what results a Kiem project can yield and the practical lessons he learned. He emphasised the importance of an open attitude towards playfulness while collaborating with others. ‘Bless the mess’, was one of his pieces of advice.

Humble attitude and mini-me’s

While in one room participants enthusiastically engaged in Kiem speed dates, a second session looked at the experiences with interdisciplinary collaborations from the Leiden interdisciplinary research programmes (stimuleringsprogramma’s). Jan Aart Scholte, head of the Global Transformations and Governance Challenges programme, pointed out the importance of an open mind. He thinks that humility is part of that. ‘We’re all very proud academics with our doctorates and publications. We make it in our career to tell people how much we know. But it’s really good in interdisciplinary encounters to admit how much you don’t know, how little you know, in fact. And how much others in different fields can help you.’

Marieke Liem, head of the Social Resilience and Security programme, chimed in. Among other things, she shared, ‘In the context of the interdisciplinary research programme, particularly in the beginning, it is very tempting when putting together a team to hire a mini-me − a person who’s just like you. You speak the same language. You may think it is going to be easy to talk to one another and get things done because you understand one another. You may think: This person is from the same background or has the same point of view. And in the beginning, this is very convenient because you speak the same language. But that can be really inhibiting in the long run because there is a lack of different flavour. It’s just a mini version of you.’

High risk, high reward

At the end of the day, University of Utrecht researcher Roosmarijn van Woerden shared some of her research results on interdisciplinary collaboration. She described these projects as ‘high risk, high rewards’ endeavours. According to her a definite do is, ‘Discuss each other’s differences in working style, goals and expectations.’ A don’t would be, ‘Let conceptual unclarities slide.’

This symposium was the first of a series of three Leiden events on interdisciplinary collaboration. The next symposium, which will focus on inter- and transdisciplinary collaboration between educational institutions, will take place on Thursday 14 March in Leiden. See here for full programme and registration.

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