‘Time to reflect, alone and with fellow NIAS-fellows’

When I was awarded the L’Oréal-Unescofellowship for women in science in November 2014, I had no idea yet how much I would enjoy my stay at NIAS. I was longing to have more time to think and NIAS seemed the perfect place for that: in a landhouse near the dunes, together with inspiring scholars from a variety of disciplines. But while I initially planned to commute from home, this turned out very quickly to be impossible, for the bike-train-bus connections needed to get from Nijmegen to Wassenaar turned out to last three hours. Therefore, spending time at NIAS meant organizing a complicated co-parenting schedule at home, complete with several baby-sitters as stand-in parents, which at first seemed a set-back to me.

But it was worth it. I stayed in a NIAS studio three days a week and worked at home on my project for the remaining two days, during five months. Being away from the usual demanding work-environment in a university hospital allows to broaden one’s scope by exploring a broad variety of literature and pursuing lines of thought further because there are little interruptions. The daily routines at NIAS allow to get into that reflective rhythm, for the wonderful staff takes over time-consuming tasks: wonderful lunches are cooked (and all fellows are remembered to go there via the intercom), English tea is provided on Wednesdays, the library personnel gathers requested literature, and organizes social events, outings and seminars.

Development of new ideas

Interaction between scholars from different disciplines fosters the development of new ideas. My background is in philosophy of technology and ethics and it is from this background that I look at the topic of my project: the future of newborn screening when it will be conducted with next generation (genetic) sequencing. Conversations with medievalist Frances Andrews and the first artist in residence Jan Rosseel, however, broadened my scope. Both are interested in the topic of remembering (how we remember, what we forget and why, and what role text, pictures and even smells and tastes play in our stories about the past) , which made me more interested in storytelling as a way to link the past to the yet-to-be-experienced future. Talking to them fostered reflection about the relevance and content of future scenarios as a kind of stories that are used to inspire reflection about future technology in stakeholders.  Conversations with Katharina Schramm, as well as references she sent me, furthermore, broadened my scope to anthropological work on genetics and motivated me to take a more ethical perspective to the ways in which geneticists interpret the meaning of the materiality of bodies, including genes. 

Identifying with values and norms

Talking with other fellows about a variety of themes, ranging from the acceptability of black Pete (the black servant of Saint Nicholas celebrated in the Netherlands on the 5th of December) to the appropriate response to the terrorist attacks in Paris, were all interesting and rewarding - though perhaps not immediately relevant to my project. Many of these conversations made me think more about what we are doing when we are identifying ourselves with values and norms and consider ourselves ‘OK-people’. Doing this is of course important for the justification of actions and for the planning of the future, but such identification becomes less convincing for the outside world when important (historical) storylines are being forgotten as if they never were part of ‘us’, such as the Dutch history in slavery or the reasons to treat all citizens similarly for the law even in the face of terrorist attacks.  This ambiguity in moral identity seems to be an important lesson when thinking about the technological future too, which I will take with me when I leave NIAS.

Quiet atmosphere

When NIAS moves to Amsterdam next year, it will surely change. But I hope that this quiet atmosphere that invites reflection and sharing of thought will be preserved and fed by the cultural and academic environment of Amsterdam. I trust the NIAS personnel, as well as  future fellows will have a wonderful time there.