Basic Science at the Faculty of Law, Year One

By Professor Mikael Rask Madsen, Center Leader for iCourts

Receiving a DNRF grant to establish a Center of excellence (CoE) brings both a unique opportunity and challenge. It provides the means for taking one’s research to a whole new level – but only if the right infrastructure is rapidly developed. Traditional barriers in research – notably the chronic lack of resources – are effectively removed, and, with this, you find yourself in a new territory of being responsible for key strategic choices regarding both research and organization. Doing this at a faculty that had no previous CoEs and thus no experience with the possibilities or the challenges involved makes for both a real challenge and perhaps an even greater opportunity. This guest editorial looks back, one year on, at the creation of iCourts, the Centre for International Courts at the University of Copenhagen, Faculty of Law, as the first CoE established in the field of law.

iCourts was established in March 2012 with the explicit aim of examining the striking proliferation of international courts and their causes and consequences for both national and international law and society. In addition, it is probably fair to say that we saw iCourts as a vehicle for more generally “shaking up” and furthering basic research within the field of law; neither our materials nor research tools, for example, resemble the usual leather-bound empirics of conventional legal science. If the mainstream legal research tends to resemble theology in terms of doctrinal analysis, our interdisciplinary approaches and agendas are generally more closely related to social science. Ironically, our relative uniqueness in approach has probably made us more palatable to colleagues, and we have not faced too much friction in that respect. It should be added that many of these issues were settled during the application process after some initial turf battles with more orthodox colleagues.

In addition to iCourts’ explicit basic scientific objectives, one clearly defining feature of the center is that it is a new research center. The original, rather small staff was gradually moved to the new premises in the spring and summer of 2012, and the first Ph.D. students were enrolled in the autumn of 2012. The center has doubled in size since then and continues to expand. Generally, we were in the rather unique situation of not being burdened by existing center structures and could largely craft the center we envisaged. In practice, this implied that we were also in the position of having to invent a new culture: At the research level, we had to steer a strong individualistic research culture toward working as a collective research endeavor; at the institutional level, we had to ensure the necessary administrative support was available “on demand” for realizing what probably came across as an incessant flow of new initiatives.

Obtaining funding for a CoE is in practice a “game changer” on multiple levels. It changes fundamental rules of the academic game, particularly concerning who are the actual decision makers. In mainstream academic culture, answers to questions about “what is possible” and “what is wanted” tend to involve decision makers beyond individual researchers’ reach. The CoE turns this around and raises far more demanding questions concerning what we want to do and what risks we want to take. In other words, questions related to prioritizing resources in a broad sense are moved down to the PI and, not least, to the research environment itself. In a formerly individualistic research culture, this puts a new and different kind of pressure on senior researchers in particular, who are now in a position where they can make decisions – and have to make decisions. Research can no longer be managed via self-management; it requires real management of groups and larger resources.

Looking back after one year, I would say that in addition to dealing with the many smaller questions related to launching the research and fine-tuning the team, our top priority has been to ensure the infrastructure – physically and mentally – for implementing the research plan. In a way, the real question has been how to turn the DNRF’s notion of a CoE into an operational and practical institutional model for our specific purposes and in our particular context. Creating a center of excellence obviously entails more than hosting a great research project. Like all of our DNRF colleagues, our goal is to create a dynamic home for the research and to develop it into a key hub within the larger network of research dedicated to our object of study. We are well aware that this requires more than funding; it also requires the right attitude in order to make it possible and develop the institutional frameworks and daily work conditions that promote such an approach.