The New Iscte Center brings exact science into conversation with the humanities Scientific inquiry

The Iscte – Instituto Universitário de Lisboa is creating a new center with the aim of combining the social and human sciences with the exact sciences and engineering. In the end, Iscte – Knowledge and Innovation should bring together professionals from fields as diverse as psychology, architecture, anthropology, sociology, management, economics and technology. The mission? Promoting the exchange and upgrading of knowledge from different fields in order to accelerate innovation.

“We want to bring people who look at the world in different ways to a dialogue, to perceive new problems and to find solutions. Much of the development of knowledge and discussion comes from informal environments, the so-called ‘coffee conversation'”, explains the PUBLIC Maria Lurdes Rodrigues, Dean of Iscte and former Minister of Education: “The aim is to no longer have several scattered units of knowledge and to motivate people to unite at a central pole.”

To this end, eight research centers, ten laboratories and three Iscte observatories will be relocated to the former facilities of the Institute for Mobility and Transport (IMT) on Avenida das Forças Armadas in Lisbon over the next two years. The National Railway Documentation Center has been preserved from the original building and is located in a new room open to the public.

The € 12 million project should be ready for the first 400 researchers by the end of 2022. The majority of the budget is to renovate the facilities of the old IMT with almost 3 million euros for the purchase of new research equipment. Around five million euros will come from the European funds in Portugal in 2020.

Interaction prevents mistakes

In the end, the new campus will be Iscte’s largest, at 9,000 square feet and the capacity to house more than 1,000 researchers – including undergraduate students from PhD programs – in spaces that encourage interaction. “There are countless cases in which progress is delayed due to the lack of dialogue between different areas,” explains Maria Lurdes Rodrigues.

The Dean of Iscte gives the latest example of applications created to expedite the tracking of contacts of people diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus. Several countries have tried to develop such systems but have faced poor compliance, technical issues, or the difficulty of activating the apps’ automatic warning system. This is the case with the versions from France, Great Britain, Italy and also the Portuguese app StayAway Covid.

“These types of applications could work better if there was a dialogue between different areas of knowledge. There are many systems that cannot depend on engineering alone, ”he argues. “In this case, there is a need to understand the public perception of cybersecurity and the ability of healthcare professionals to incorporate these applications.”

It’s a vision that other scientists share. In the report Artificial Intelligence: Ways and Opportunities – A Vision of Portugal, published this year by the Francisco Manuel dos Santos Foundation, one of the criticisms of the Portuguese innovation model was the lack of ethical and philosophical professionals thinking about artificial intelligence.

For years, the European Commission has also tried to promote greater interaction between the social sciences and humanities in scientific and technological development through the European science funding program Horizon 2020. “Many of the societal challenges that research and innovation need to address are too complex to be tackled in a single scientific discipline,” said Jean-Eric Paquet, Director General of Research and Innovation at the European Commission, in the 2020 report about Horizon 2020 projects.

For example, coping with climate change requires knowledge of psychology and sociology. This is because innovations in energy use and transport only have an impact if they take into account the way in which people change their behavior.

The center is being built to encourage collaboration with Iscte

This is one of the reasons for creating locations like Iscte – Knowledge and Innovation across Europe. This is the case in the Social Science Research Park at Cardiff University in the UK and the Academic Coordination Unit (UCA) at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain. Lurdes Rodrigues, who believes that these types of initiatives – which the Iscte team attended to create the new center – show “that it is possible to counter diffuse devaluation trends in the social sciences and humanities”.

Health, transportation, culture industries

And what kind of projects can arise in the new Iscte center? “We are very interested in health, in traffic, in the culture industry, but not only,” lists Lurdes Rodrigues. “There is great potential in the way public administration can be modernized through data science and artificial intelligence,” he continues.

In an initial phase, however, the centre’s researchers need to focus on ongoing projects such as DeSTRESS from the Business Research Unit (BRU), Iscte’s business studies center that seeks solutions to prevent and manage related health problems at work. Or Muse, a project by the Iscte Research and Social Intervention Center that aims to investigate the effects of music on the development of social skills.

“We have a lot of projects going on. The new space is only there to improve our conversations and to understand what can still be done, ”summarizes Lurdes Rodrigues. “Basically, we want to have the wealth that is already in the various knowledge production centers of Iscte on a single campus.”

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