How to build a cross-disciplinary institute: the curious case of the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies

Marten Scheffer, Nestor Mazzeo
2019 Ecology and Society  
There is no recipe for setting up a new institute, especially if it is meant to be different from anything that currently exists. Here, we give a look behind the scenes at how we dreamt up the transdisciplinary South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Science (SARAS), located in Uruguay, and how, with help from a network of renowned freethinkers and dedicated doers, we made it happen. Trying to shape the institute over the first decade, we learned 10 important lessons that may
more » ... be helpful for others in similar situations. (1) Securing a stable budget is essential, but a permanent challenge. (2) Structural international funding for a place-based institute is unlikely. (3) Having the institute outside the formal structure of a university gives liberty, but it is important to nurture good relationships. (4) An informal setting with ample scheduled time for walks, camp fires, and other leisure interactions helps participants build the trust and take the time needed to connect across disciplines and worldviews but can be seen as decadent by outsiders. (5) It is important to build resilience to the occasional reshuffling of cards inherent with government change. (6) It remains difficult for remote international board members to fathom the local dynamics and challenges inherent to running the institute on the ground. (7) Keeping the big idea alive while solving the continuous stream of everyday issues requires a combination of personalities with complementary skills in the dreamer-doer continuum. (8) There is a trade-off in selecting board members because the famous persons needed for credibility and for their extensive networks often have little time to contribute actively. (9) Truly linking science and arts requires long-term interaction between artists and scientists that are personally interested in this enterprise to allow for the necessary building of trust and mutual understanding. (10) A local sense of ownership is essential for long-term resilience. CONCEPTION The conception of the idea for a South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies (SARAS: happened in 2006 during a conversation between Marten Scheffer and Néstor Mazzeo on a summer day in the garden of Scheffer's country house in the Netherlands. We had just run a project to sample 85 lakes on a climate gradient from tropical Brazil down to the tundra of Tierra del Fuego. In hindsight, what made this project so remarkable was the lack of funding. Not much more than the salaries of a Uruguayan and a Dutch PhD student were covered, whereas the expedition, meant to measure climate effects, required enormous logistic and analytical efforts. The approach was to seek scientists along the gradient who were willing to help identify suitable lakes and support the two students in the field. In return, we would analyze the samples and data together and publish together. The resulting web of scientists turned out to become a long-term network. Thanks to the trust built over the productive and exciting project, the web of cooperation is still alive and kicking one decade after the original project was finished. Such lively and resilient professional networks weaving South American and European scientists together were, and are, all too rare. Ecology and Society 24(2): 34
doi:10.5751/es-10983-240234 fatcat:3ar6anbcofhwlfwjjrd7sglbji