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Corona as an interdisciplinary challenge

Date:21 April 2020
Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries

In the summer of 2019, Cisca Wijmenga, Hans Biemans and I, together with the staff, started work on the University of Groningen’s new Strategic Plan. We had intended to have it finished before the forthcoming summer holiday. And suddenly, there was the coronavirus. A pandemic, which almost brought our university to a halt. The British politician MacMillan was once again proved right in the legendary explanation he once gave about the core of his administrative activities: ‘Events, my dear boy, events!’ It’s always the unexpected events that throw long-term policy into confusion and devour the energy of administrators.

Work on the Strategic Plan has meanwhile resumed. One of the strategies that we are formulating concerns the importance of interdisciplinary teaching and research. We have even come up with an organizational solution: ‘the school’, inspired by the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and our own Aletta Jacobs School of Public Health.

The coronavirus itself could serve as an excellent interdisciplinary topic for the staff and students in the faculties and services units. A pandemic is the perfect subject for interdisciplinary research. Doctors, virologists, epidemiologists, psychologists, statisticians, political scientists, ecologists, lawyers, economists and business administrators can all have their say.

I would very much like to study the pandemic from the political science and business administration angles. There are three important questions I want to answer. First, how are countries with different political and administrative institutions tackling the coronavirus, and can we draw any conclusions about their effectiveness? I have been following the curves relating to the global infection and mortality rates per country with great interest, and wondering which country or political system has taken the best approach to the problem.

Secondly, we often see that the relevant politicians and administrators underestimate events, or don’t take them seriously at first. Administrative intervention is therefore too little, or too late. How is this possible? Which political and administrative mechanisms play a role here?

And thirdly, there are always a handful of scientists who sound the alarm bell early and advocate an alternative policy. Why is it that these critics are always marginalized at the outset? Why was Alex Friedrich from the UMCG only asked to join the Outbreak Management Team (OMT) discussions once? Does the strategy of excluding critical virologists and microbiologists work, as Thomas Kuhn once described in his book ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’?

Three questions that could lead the way to interdisciplinary research and teaching at the UG.

Prof. Jouke de Vries

President of the Board of the University
20 April 2020