The Center is a successful model for how to bridge disciplinary boundaries and proper scientific inquiry.
Interview Sally Wyatt, Program Leader of the eHumanities Group KNAW
The Center is a successful model for how to bridge disciplinary boundaries and proper scientific inquiry.
Interview Sally Wyatt, Program Leader of the eHumanities Group KNAW

Bridging disciplinary boundaries 

Prof. Sally Wyatt jokes about her original reason for joining the eScience Advisory Committee: “Quite frankly, I saw it as a way to force myself to stay informed about what the Center was doing!” As Program Leader of the eHumanities Group of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) and Professor of Digital Cultures in Development, Prof. Wyatt is at home where humanistic studies and digital technologies merge to answer questions about how the human experience is processed and documented.

“The Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC) and the eHumanities Group had quite similar aims from the beginning; the mandate to understand sciences in the broad sense and a commitment to explore intersections where we can learn across disciplines,” she explains further. “I was convinced of the importance of a new research infrastructure that foments collaborative, interdisciplinary work where computers enable large-scale analyses with data as varied as text in books, notes in music, recorded voices or images. The NLeSC would play a decisive role in building that infrastructure, so it made sense to be a part of it.”

The idea of using computers in the humanities is not new. “The first computers lent themselves very well for research questions of theologians and linguists,” says Prof. Wyatt. Yet, implementing digital technologies in humanities and other sciences has coevolved with the quickly expanding digitalization of experiences and information. Thus, just as digital technologies are now a part of the fabric of everyday life, computing power is now part of an enhanced toolbox for researchers to answer increasingly complex questions. This power comes with challenges. “For example,” describes Prof. Wyatt, “creating open data available for re-use by anyone is no trivial matter.” Long hours go into classifying the data, ensuring the longevity of the data format, and describing the data so it can be found and used. At the other end of the spectrum is the assessment of data sources. “There is an interesting tension between contemporary practices and older documentation forms.

Only about 15% of materials in museums are digitized. So, how do you deal with the uncertainties of a human record that is not completely available for research using digital or computational tools and methods?”

Other issues arise from the interdisciplinarity inherent to projects at the interface of humanities and digital technologies. A team of researchers from different fields will encounter conceptual differences that affect their approach to a research question. “For one project of the eHumanities Group, a computer scientist, a mathematician and a political scientist explored network shifts during regime changes based on electronic archives of news media. Each had their own definition of network. So they first had to come to a consensus about what a network is! Then they had to come up with a way to teach a computer to identify a network in the source documents.” Prof. Wyatt chuckles and adds, “I call this ‘invisible work’ because it is extensive but usually goes unrewarded.”

“Such challenges”, continues Prof. Wyatt, “are best overcome with open-mindedness; a willingness to learn from other disciplines, to share experiences and generate ideas that are enhanced by the input of all parties involved. This is where the NLeSC has its greatest impact. The NLeSC creates the time, space and opportunity for this vital exchange.”

As a place where truly interdisciplinary research takes place, the Center is a successful model for how to bridge disciplinary boundaries and propel scientific inquiry.

Under the premise that digital research tools can and should be developed to be used across disciplines, the NLeSC functions as a catalyst for the creation of elegant, clean and well-documented scientific software with an expanded scope of use. “The network of eScience Research Engineers is a highly successful model,” explains Prof. Wyatt. “These are experts who sit with you as you plan and create the digital component of your project. They carry your project back to the Center and exchange ideas with other Engineers to see how analogous problems are solved in other disciplines. They provide long-term vision for the tool you are creating so it can be used beyond the scope of your own project and beyond the term of your project funding.” As aggregator of research projects using digital technologies, the NLeSC also provides institutional memory and continuity. Problems faced in one project can be resolved with experiences and solutions from another project, regardless of discipline. Finally, the NLeSC strives to close gaps in the evolving infrastructure of scientific research using digital technologies.

“Since joining the eScience Advisory Committee,” reminisces Prof. Wyatt, “I have enjoyed an exciting exchange of ideas, witnessed a refreshing plurality of techniques and solutions, been surprised by novel links and collaborated on events beyond the Center. Building networks, facilitating connections — that is the job of the NLeSC. As a place where truly interdisciplinary research takes place, the Center is a successful model for how to bridge disciplinary boundaries and propel scientific inquiry.”

Text: Anja Brunner
Photography: Sally Wyatt

Sign up for our newsletter