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Christian Richter

Scientific Coordinator for Social Cohesion in Objective 1: Focusing on Grand Challenges

Feb 18, 2021

Christian Richter

Christian Richter
Image Credit: Nils Eisfeld

The partner institutions of the Berlin University Alliance (BUA) have set themselves the ambitious target of jointly shaping Berlin as an integrated research environment with a particular focus on addressing societal challenges of global significance – the grand challenges. The topic of social cohesion has been identified as the first grand challenge initiative. The concept of social cohesion lies at the intersection of humanities, social science, natural science, and engineering perspectives. Since October 2020, six research projects have been funded to conduct research across a variety of disciplines and academic institutions on the dynamics, perspectives, and limits of what holds our societies together at their core.

Christian Richter has been the scientific coordinator for the topic of social cohesion since July 1, 2020. Previously, he worked as a coordinator in the internationalization department at TU Dresden. As a sociologist, he now combines his background in organizational development with a broad range of experience in the field of foundations as well as in development cooperation and policy advice. This path has led him to many research-related interface areas in India, Georgia, and the German research landscape.

Christian, you are responsible for the topic of social cohesion within the grand challenge initiatives. What is this all about?

The grand challenge initiatives are an attempt to dive deep into new topics – topics which in our view will increase in importance in the future. Social cohesion is a topic of perennial relevance because it tackles the question of what holds our society together at its core in the face of constant change. We want to get a better understanding of how our society finds agreement on what we think of as the “glue”, the essence of our togetherness. And, of course, we look at the factors that promote or diminish that cohesion. In the midst of debates about major technological, natural, and also social shifts, our goal is to develop a deeper understanding of the extent to which social cohesion can contribute to successful togetherness in this context.

The six research projects selected in the main call have been receiving funding for four months now. How are you supporting them along the way?

Our aim is to create a networked research association in Berlin that puts the topic on the research agenda in an innovative and internationally visible way. The BUA seeks to support projects that are most certainly risky, that are exploratory in nature, and that we also expect to evolve through close exchange and cooperation. My task is to facilitate this productive collaboration and accompany the funded projects as they develop into established structures, and thus act as the central contact for the researchers from the excellence alliance.

You came on board right in the middle of the call for proposals for the main call. The closing date for applications had passed, the projects were about to be selected, and for the first time a pitch for the six final projects was to be included in the BUA’s selection process. You could say you were thrown right in at the deep end.

Yes, a really exciting and eventful time, but luckily I’m not a bad swimmer.

Our aim was to get the first major BUA research line up and running as quickly as possible. Against the backdrop of the pandemic, we therefore decided to push ahead with the call for proposals and the accompanying structural organization at the same time. On the one hand, this meant a lot of unanswered questions, the solutions to which required a lot of teamwork. So I am very grateful for the support I received from my colleagues in the BUA and the partner institutions. On the other hand, we learned important lessons and collected plenty of experience as a result. This now makes it easier for us to initiate future grants.

I’ve also received support from colleagues involved in the other objectives and members of the steering committee, and for that I’m very grateful. In the first year of funding of the alliance, many structures and processes had to be put in place within the alliance, which meant that we were all faced with new tasks and challenges.

The six projects cover a diverse range of topics. What impressed you during the selection process?

The projects actually cover a broad spectrum: cultural inclusion, dynamics between the individual and society, a global view of what constitutes “good” coexistence, current issues spanning housing, health, nutrition, migration, and legal issues. However, the projects complement each other in terms of the issues they address and thus enable a comprehensive analysis of the topic of social cohesion to be carried out. The interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary nature of the projects is what sets them apart. They bring together different academic fields and cooperate with actors outside the academic environment. This last aspect in particular is important to us when we talk about a future topic relating to society as a whole, a grand challenge.

What's up next for the selected alliance projects?

It's been a bumpy ride for the projects due to the fact that the main call took place during the first wave of the pandemic and the alliance's structures were growing. Plans had to be altered and at times everything seemed to be moving very quickly. Then things began to settle down with the projects; detailed questions had to be clarified. I was very pleased to see visibility given to the first activities around the turn of the year. Now we would like to hold a joint kick-off with the projects to enable the necessary exchange and clarify the question regarding how the projects can link with each other and also use points of contact and synergies within the structures of the alliance.

Are there other opportunities for researchers to get involved in this topic?

Yes, there are and we also want to expand these opportunities. For example, through the call “Ox/BUA Centre for Advanced Studies” within the Oxford/Berlin Research Partnership, we have project funding with plenty of overlaps which we would like to see bear fruit.

We also want to stay in touch with researchers who submitted applications as part of the Social Cohesion Main Call and were not selected for an exploration project. In 2019, we also already had a pre-call which facilitated funding for 55 projects. Our aim is to support promising ideas where we can.

Over the three-year term of the exploration projects, we would like to identify further links to the topic of social cohesion, for example, in closer exchange with the activities relating to other BUA objectives and cross-cutting themes. In addition, we are seeking dialog with other research associations in other contexts, such as the Forschungsinstitut Gesellschaftlicher Zusammenhalt (FGZ) (Research Institute for Social Cohesion).

What do you think is special about the Berlin University Alliance?

What's appealing about the BUA is how it attempts to conduct research across all four institutions and then link the work done with the objectives of the alliance. In this respect, the joint project has outlined many interesting and ambitious plans in the proposal. There is a lot of potential here and I find it an exciting challenge to help develop the necessary structures. It's a broad field for new ideas. And you get to know incredibly interesting people and projects, so it never gets boring.