Cutting-Edge and Accessible Research

Guillaume Plantin, Vice President for Research and professor at the department of economics, worked abroad for many years before joining Sciences Po. This experience was conducive to his understanding of research in a global context: global in terms of the issues to explore – environment, digital technology, populism – and global in terms of the global competition in which science is evolving. He believes that research at Sciences Po has a solid record and has demonstrated the necessary creativity to meet these challenges – in its own way. He explains in this interview.

What are the particularities of research at Sciences Po?

I would say that Sciences Po’s research has four key features. First, our research is dominated by political science. It’s a hallmark since this discipline was born within our walls in France, over a century ago. Law, economics, history, and sociology then gradually developed. This focus on a limited number of disciplines is a second feature. It is one of our strengths because it allows us to work collegially by adopting multidisciplinary approaches, i.e. when a “subject” is separately studied by several disciplines, and interdisciplinary research, i.e. when disciplines jointly approach a same subject. This is the third pillar. The fourth dimension, which is just as important, is our faculty’s involvement in public debate. Since its creation, Sciences Po has assigned itself the mission of using the products of its research to engage with society beyond academia. Finally, our research faithfully reflects Sciences Po’s pedagogical goal, for which it is also a resource.

What are current areas of focus?

We are already tackling increasingly pressing issues: the environment, digital technology, territories, gender, populism, and economic and financial instabilities. We are now launching new interdisciplinary groups, like the one seeking to bring together law and economics to address common themes. There is much to do in this area. For example, what economic tools are used in the legal process and the development of its rulings? We also make our researchers communicate about their methods. It is necessary and conducive to new ideas and practices. The medialab is a major asset in this regard, and is unique in the French academic landscape. It has fostered the development of cutting-edge methods, such as ones to harvest and analyse big data. Many researchers use these new tools. The medialab and participating researchers from all backgrounds also created a working group on digital transitions. Finally, we will start exploring subjects that are usually confined to the so-called “hard” sciences. An example is biotechnology, which is raising ethical, political, and social questions that the social sciences must consider.

Aren’t there older and more persistent subjects like inequalities that are and will always be worth studying?

Of course, but these issues are evolving. Inequalities are a case in point: the transformation of economic, financial, and technological systems are deeply changing them. It behoves us to understand why, how, and what are the social and political effects it entails. We must also help imagine public policies and societal changes to stem inequalities deemed out of control in many countries. One of our laboratories – MaxPo, the product of an alliance with the prestigious Max Planck Institute – focuses on this. Another example is research pursued within the Laboratory for interdisciplinary study of public policies (the LIEPP). Its research addresses the longstanding need to measure the effectiveness of public policy. But by combining an interdisciplinary approach, scientific rigor, and a desire to make proposals understandable to a broad audience, it reinvents this type of study.

What challenges should the institution and its researchers address?

It is essential that we continue to pair disciplines and be open to society. This objective may seem self-evident but it is not easy to reach. We were able, in several years, to lift ourselves to the rank of a world-class research university, and we must now continue growing in an extremely competitive global environment. It is therefore key that our faculty members conduct advanced research in their disciplines and publish in the best international journals. Besides the pursuit of this classical academic excellence, we ask that they dialogue with other disciplines and reach out to the general public. The vast majority of our researchers appreciates the need for this multi-pronged effort, and it is our duty to help them by allowing them, among other things, to manage their time, and by providing them with solid administrative support.

What are the major institutional developments?

First, we are mindful of applying to ourselves our research findings on gender equality, for example. While much progress remains to be made, we are on the right path. Another challenge is to continue to internationalise. We have very satisfactorily succeeded in combining these objectives. Over the past years we have recruited many researchers from abroad who are studying key issues. The idea is to strengthen cooperation, like the Alliance program connecting us to Columbia, our joint PhDs, and our partnerships with universities located in countries that are crucibles of globalisation, such as China and Brazil. Finally, we would like to emphasise our efforts to integrate foreign academics visiting Sciences Po. Over a hundred of them come every year. It is a wonderful means for us to open ourselves to other ways of thinking and to different perspectives on questions that affect all societies. Another objective is to not rest on our laurels. Hence, our faculty’s activities are regularly assessed internally and externally. There are obviously quantitative indicators, but we are especially committed to a qualitative analysis of the research and its long-term impact.

All this requires significant resources…

Indeed! Sciences Po devotes around a third of its own resources to research. A significant part of this effort focuses on the next generation – our PhD students – who must be able to pursue their research in the best conditions. We also secure public funding on the basis of highly competitive calls for proposals, especially those of the European Research Council, and of the National Agency for Research. Finally, we deploy private funding, without ever compromising on the most precious good: academic independence and freedom.

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