And now, to make sure you’re completely up to date on the latest trends and able to discuss these during your Christmas dinner, here’s the year in review from an academic point of view – an overview of the latest insights, trends and concepts over which Rotterdam researchers lost their heads in 2015.
It’s that time of the year. You’ve decorated the tree and made your New Year’s resolutions. Chances are you’ve even had a quick look at the songs which have made this year’s Top 2000, even though you may feel the Top 2000 is an outdated concept.
In other words, it’s time for a list. The best thrillers, the fastest-growing companies and Hollywood’s most promising young actors. It takes quite a superhuman effort these days to avoid exposure to the only form of journalism which seems to exist in the weeks leading up to Christmas: the year in review. So we decided to have a crack at a review ourselves.
Sorry, we couldn’t help ourselves.
The scientists we consulted made a valiant attempt to dissuade us. We were aware, weren’t we, that academic pursuits are not an accumulation of success stories? That not every academic is busy ‘discovering the Higgs boson’, as psychologist Rolf Zwaan put it, and that scientific research is best described as ‘an oil tanker’, according to economist Bas Jacobs?
Well, yes, we’re aware of all that, but we didn’t want to send you into Christmas empty-handed. So here, for your perusal, is a selection from the work being done by over two thousand researchers who work themselves into a sweat every day to try and understand the world just a tiny bit better. Sure, it’s a completely random pick. Even so, this is the legacy of 2015.
#1. The autonomous car
It doesn’t exist yet, but it’s on its way. And that’s good news to business administration specialists. Not because it will enable them to send e-mails while driving to the university, but because it’s the advent of a completely new form of innovation, which is called disruptive economy. Take AirBNB, for instance, which is blowing the hotel industry out of the water, or Zalando, which is wreaking havoc on the fashion industry, and Google (once a mere search engine), which is trying to take over the car market.
What is essential to an understanding of this new form of operational management (and therefore of great interest to business administration specialists) is that we’re no longer talking about launching pioneering new services or products, but rather about new revenue models, says Justin Jansen, a Professor of Corporate Entrepreneurship at the Rotterdam School of Management. Jansen is a researcher who is trying to answer the question as to how companies can be disruptive rather than falling prey to newcomers in the field, and how countries can create ‘ecosystems’ in which there is room for the Booking.coms of this world.
To make a long story short: it’s time to focus on scale-up rather than start-up. You see, even though just a few years ago we believed that any attic or garage box could be home to the next Google, we have now learned that only a small percentage of all start-ups succeed in becoming fast-growing companies.
Judging from the ScaleUp Dashboard, which Jansen published for the first time this year, 5.4 percent of all Dutch companies with more than ten employees is a fast-growing company. “This percentage is well above the percentage of fast-growing companies in the United Kingdom, Germany or France – i.e., the countries which have been identified over the last few years as Europe’s scale-up nations”, said Jansen.
It should be noted, however, that we could stand to be a little more disruptive, because seven years ago, this percentage was twice as high. What we need is even better access to growth capital and more entrepreneurial education. “Large companies should realise that they need young companies, and vice versa.”
#2. There is more inequality in the world
The years since the global financial crisis have not always been fun for our economists. Just last year, Joris Luyendijk accused academics of being insufficiently critical of the banking world. And Rotterdam Professor of Financial Management Science Jaap Spronk, on leaving the university, dropped a bombshell by commenting that the financial research and education systems were in need of some major reform.
However, the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century was met with positive noises, and then some. Technically, the book was published a little over a year ago, but the impact was such that the consequences were still reverberating throughout 2015. All of a sudden, economic inequality was a hot topic of debate again – in academia, but also (and mainly) elsewhere.
“It was the first time I ever witnessed people paying money to listen to an economist give a highly scientific presentation in a too-packed Paradiso”, said Bas Jacobs, Professor of Public Finance and Economic Policy at the Erasmus School of Economics. “It was a very odd event. I doubt we’ll ever see its like again.” It resulted in debates on tax reform and basic income, and most of all, on inequality in the Netherlands.
Jacobs does not regret the fact that the subject is back on the agenda, because he welcomes any attention for his field of study. This autumn he published a book entitled De prijs van gelijkheid [The Price of Equality]. However, he denies that inequality is a huge problem in the Netherlands. The USA genuinely has a problem, says the economist, but our income inequality is pretty much the same as in the Scandinavian countries. “What is different, however, is our degree of unequally distributed wealth, but then again, this is largely due to our superannuation schemes.”
#3. You’re a racist
You’re a racist, and chances are you aren’t even aware of it. And now that we’ve told you, you’ll probably start bringing up arguments as to why you’re not a racist. Good luck with that. Published figures suggest you’re wrong.
It’s like this. A large percentage of our racism is subconscious, or, as it’s often called in social debates, institutional. This means that someone called Muhammad is less likely to be invited to a job interview than someone called Eric, and that a Dutchman of Moroccan descent is more likely to have the door slammed shut in his face if he feels like going to Blender on a Saturday night. (For the senior citizens among you: Blender is a night club in the Witte de Withstraat.)
It’s been a hot topic this year, in academia as elsewhere. It’s worth mentioning in this context the historian Zihni Ozdil, who published a book entitled Nederland mijn vaderland [My country The Netherlands] this year, and sports researcher Jacco van Sterkenburg of the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, who analysed football commentators’ comments on footballers and made some disconcerting findings. In brief: whereas ‘white’ players are generally praised for their understanding of tactics or for their ability to work in a team, ‘black’ players tend to be discussed in animal terms. In other words, white footballers are clever, while black footballers are fast runners.
The racism debate was livelier than usual this year due to the question as to how Dutch society is to deal with Black Pete. This was an issue at Erasmus University, as well, where Chairwoman of the Board Pauline van der Meer Mohr tried hard to have a successful St Nicholas celebration, without too great a loss of face for the university.
The fact that this subject was debated at the university was a special occurrence in itself, because generally speaking, academics shy away from discussing the ‘black pages in Dutch history’, irrespective of whether these concern slavery (which is part of the Black Pete debate) or the Dutch war record in Indonesia. “Here in the Netherlands we do not have a radical tradition of scientists engaging in polemics and breaking taboos”, said historian Stef Scagliola. “Sensitive subjects tend to be brought up by journalists first. Academics generally don’t get involved in the debate until later.”
#4. Professors of Medicine become IT specialists
Never before in his career has Jan Hoeijmakers, a Professor of Molecular Genetics at the Erasmus MC who is reaching retirement age, been this sanguine about the future. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson, even cancer – according to Hoeijmakers, who previously scored major breakthroughs with his research into ageing, we are on the brink of a revolution.
His optimism is partly due to the impressive amount of equipment the biomedics have been gathering on the sixth floor of the Medicine building over the last ten years. Mapping the entire human genome, which was considered next to impossible during the days of the Human Genome Project in the 1990s (and cost hundreds of millions of euros at the time), now only takes a few weeks and costs a mere €5,000. Mapping essential genes, which cause certain medical disorders or character traits, can be done far more quickly and far more cheaply; throw a random cell into a machine and you’ll have a few terabytes’ worth of base pairs in a matter of days.
You’d think this would be wonderful news, if it weren’t for the fact that technology is changing so rapidly that your average genome sequencer has become obsolete and ready for replacement within three years of its purchase. Over the last few years, the Genomics department of the Erasmus Center for Biomics has invested about €25 million in new equipment, estimated Wilfred van IJcken, the head of the department. They’d now like some new sequencers which – depending on the supplier – cost between six and nine hundred thousand euros each. These are hardly the kinds of amounts your average university has lying around.
And so the department is looking for a way to either outsource these expensive types of analysis or perform the analyses in collaboration with other departments and universities. Said Van IJcken, “We are exploring our options for shared facilities.”
Genomics is not the only field in which professors of medicine are becoming increasingly dependent on highly complex technological infrastructure. Professor of Virology Marion Koopmans, along with a large number of other research institutions, obtained a €20 million grant to develop a data bank containing all the main pathogens. They’ve got the knowledge; the main challenge is now to find a way to store, analyse and share this knowledge more quickly and efficiently.
#5. Most research findings are false
Erasmus University’s annual honorary doctorate was awarded this year to the American Professor of Medicine John Ioannidis of Stanford University, who authored an essay meaningfully entitled ‘Why Most Published Research Findings Are False’ (PLoS Medicine, 2005).
A telling choice, which symbolizes the current trend of taking a critical look at the way in which scientific research is being conducted. In social sciences, the field of study hit hardest by the fraud scandals involving Diederik Stapel and – at our own university – Dirk Smeesters, research methodology has been significantly tightened up this year. And rightly so, said Professor of Cognitive Psychology Rolf Zwaan, a trendsetter in Rotterdam.
In his own field of study, only half of studies conducted can be reproduced. In social psychology, the field of study in which Smeesters and Stapel were active, only 25 percent of studies can be reproduced. Researchers used to make one methodological mistake after another. They would omit subjects or add some in, in order to obtain a clinically significant result. Or they would not formulate their hypothesis until a data set had suggested certain correlations. Although it should be noted that in many cases they weren’t aware they were doing this, added Zwaan.
Zwaan, who was in Tasmania to present a paper on reproducibility when we spoke to him, advocates a re-evaluation of good old manual labour. Such as conducting studies again, and being prepared to accept negative or disappointing results. He expects radical changes in the study of psychology. “If we are going to be stricter, we will also have to accept that not every study is going to yield exciting results. I’ve been investigating discourse comprehension for the last twenty-five years. The insights obtained from those studies are widespread, but they’ll never set the world on fire. That, too, is science.”
#6. Postmodernism is dead, long live metamodernism
Forget about South Park, forget about irony, and forget about the end of history. The Zeitgeist is changing. As of this year, the heyday of postmodernism, the paradigm used by cultural philosophers to try and make sense of the last decades of the twentieth century, is over. The new word you’ll want to use is ‘metamodernism’, a concept which – if you’re lucky enough to actually understand what it means – is sure to earn you bonus points at your Christmas party.
However, it’s nearly impossible to come up with a definition. According to one of the originators of the word, Rotterdam cultural philosopher Robin van den Akker, concepts like metamodernism are to be considered ‘a flag which points to the co-ordinates of a new cultural landscape in which several cultural analyses coagulate’. Five years ago, Van den Akker and his colleague Timotheus Vermeulen founded the study platform Notes on Metamodernism. Conferences were hosted, books were published and translated into Russian and Chinese, and media from all over the western world fell over themselves to feature the new concept. And Van den Akker saw metamodernism develop into the next big thing in philosophy, especially in this past year.
A few characteristics: room for sincerity, attention for the creative process and constructive engagement. We are allowing ourselves to dream again, but at the same time we have re-found the understanding of history that we seemed to have lost in the years of postmodernism. In other words, we’re somewhat optimistic, albeit against our own better judgement.
“People often think that we’re arguing in favour of these developments”, said Van den Akker. “But to us it’s no more than a type of cultural analysis. How you feel about these developments will largely depend on where you stand on the political spectrum. Personally, I think we’re failing big time when it comes to finding solutions. See Thomas Piketty. See Naomi Klein. I think we’re heading for a ‘cluster fuck’ of absolutely unprecedented proportions.”
So, on that note, then, happy holidays!