NordForsk course on scientific theory a success

Better informed philosophers, wiser doctoral students, more proficient communicators of science. Read a report from the NordForsk course on the philosophy of science ‘Today’s research training – tomorrow’s scientific quality‘.
Text and photos: Steve Scott Robson

On the first Friday of June 2005, a horde of youthful research students and a team of teachers descended on Hotel Lepanina, a few miles outside Pärnu, Estonia. Our hotel looking out over a short sandy beach to the Baltic Sea would entirely be ours for the week. With participants from the Baltic States, the Nordic countries, Russia and elsewhere, disciplines represented were as diverse as nationalities. NordForsk, under the skilful direction of Dr. Peeter Päts, were organising the fifth course of a unique kind: Today’s research training – tomorrow’s scientific quality’. Where else could one attend a course on the philosophy of science involving research students from 12 countries, spanning disciplines from evolutionary psychology to quantitative logistics, and pedagogy and paleolimnology?

As we made our way by coach from Tallinn, participants were asked to introduce themselves, one by one to the passengers. Initially somewhat shy, all ice was broken when Timo explained that with the coach’s mike in his hand he felt like singing karaoke. A smile went around the coach, and introductions became increasingly humorous.

Arriving at our hotel, participants got straight into action with a group exercise involving sensitivity training, relations and teamwork. Within an hour, participants were analysing their interpersonal skills, aspects of leadership and delegation of tasks.

Refreshed the next morning, for some after a yoga session lead by an energetic participant and for all after a hearty breakfast, participants attended their first lectures: ‘Philosophy of Science – what science is’. There was little downtime. Big philosophical questions were wrestled with during lectures, during coffee breaks and over meals.

Though philosophy constituted the bulk of lectures, participants engaged themselves in important questions related to education management, project management and the communicating of their science. When the presentation session got going, groups occupied a variety of seminar rooms and we all got a flavour of the diversity of our expertise: We listened to and questioned presenters talking about Finnish polypores, a sociological study on a typical village in Estonia, natural food preservatives, forestry resources of Russia, and ozone-induced damage on ash leaves.

Later, participants in pairs concocted with a simple repertoire of materials some spectacular posters. Plunging themselves into challenging questions about the relationship between science and ethics, participants created posters of impact, of imagination, of humour and of considered scientific content. Titles ranged from “Democracy in Science – Mission Impossible?” to “A New Society Contract – 10 points”, which contained in its bottom right hand corner in point number 10 – a giant heart and the remark ‘Society has to love science’.

Our one day away from our hotel took us to Pärnu, where we heard a comprehensive lecture on science and ethics by Prof. Margit Sutrop from the University of Tartu, and accompanied Ken Kalling, from the Estonian National Defence College, on a historical odyssey encompassing Estonia’s historical relationship with the natural sciences. Then, a guided tour around town. During free time later, most participants together revisited their childhood at Pärnu’s highly popular Water Park, where water slides, bathing, and massage took precedence for a few hours over the rigorous demands of the intensive schedule.

Lectures completed, and a short test done, our last night together culminated in festivities: the last supper. As the slowly descending sun inched together the horizon over a placid Baltic – the panorama from our dining hall - all Baltic and Nordic nations represented in turn entertained the group during a series of quizzes, performances and songs. Prof. Hans Siggaard Jensen made a short speech, commenting on the historical moment: this course in its fifth year, bringing together young scientists from the Baltic and the Nordic region had seen a massive advancement in the contributions from the Baltic participants.

Content, but weary we left our Hotel Lepanina the next morning, homeward bound. Better informed philosophers, wiser doctoral students, more proficient communicators of science. Another fine course under the belt of NordForsk!
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