European University Institute - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

Erik Jones on broadening the conversation in and outside Europe

An interview with new Director of the Schuman Centre on what his plans are for the Centre and what he thinks of Europe’s role in today’s world.

15/09/2021 | News

1. Erik, you have just joined the Schuman Centre as its new director. What brought you here?

I guess the one word answer to your question is ‘luck’. If I had to stretch to two words, it would be ‘good luck’. And three would be ‘very good luck’. I think I am the luckiest guy there is, to be honest. The reason I think I am so lucky is because this place is not only stuffed with brilliant colleagues wrestling with interesting questions, but because it is a place where I can easily convince anyone to join the conversation, to share their insights, or to play a larger role in one or more of the many ongoing projects. If anything, the challenge I have is pulling the ladder up behind me! You know I am kidding about that. On the contrary, this place comes with its own important challenges – to make the conversation more diverse and insightful, to make the insights more relevant to a wider audience, and to suggest how policymakers might resolve complex problems that are important to all of us related to climate change, migration, security, and the future of democracy. Choosing to come here was impossibly easy. Convincing people to let me come … well, that is a different story.

2. What is the role for a research centre such as the Schuman Centre at the EUI today?

The Schuman Centre is a natural way of connecting brilliant academics who do cutting edge research to people in the public and private sectors who need to make forward looking decisions or solve those complex problems I just mentioned. Let’s face it, most of the work that academics do is not self-explanatory. I don’t want to say that you need a PhD to read the bulk of academic research, but I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to suggest that a little background and training is prerequisite. Most decisionmakers in the public and private sector do not have that training. Even their advisors are more likely to be skilled at navigating the world of special interests than parsing the subtle distinctions that constitute ‘progress’ in research terms. That is not to suggest that academic research is irrelevant or that academics focus on … well … things that the rest of the world sees as ‘academic’. On the contrary, my point is that this research is hugely important, those subtle distinctions I mentioned do constitute progress in our understanding of the world around us, and decisionmakers outside the academy would benefit hugely from paying close attention. The role of the Schuman Centre is to show them how to extract that benefit. In the same breath, I should add, the Schuman Centre plays an important role in helping academic researchers see the questions people outside the academy are asking, challenging the assumptions that disciplinary scholarship often takes for granted, and making connections across areas that would not come naturally in a conversation among ‘experts’. The benefits flow both ways – inexorably. If the Schuman Centre did not exist, we would need to invent it.

3. What would you like to achieve in your time leading the Centre?

The most important thing will be to broaden the conversation as much as I can without diluting the identity of the EUI as a research community. There is a balance to strike there. I am going to work hard to make sure I get as close as possible. Along the way, I want to do whatever I can to raise the profile of the scholarship done at the EUI for conversations both inside and outside Europe. That means not only building on the research done here, but also taking advantage of the amazing skills that have been developed at the Robert Schuman Centre to organize events, publicize research findings, develop new teaching and training materials, engage with the wider community of stakeholders, and raise (and manage!) the resources necessary to do all these things at the same time. Beyond that, I want to work with research scholars to strengthen their ability to project their ideas far beyond the academy, I want to show them the many different career prospects that are available in the public and private sector, and I want to encourage a sense of community and camaraderie that includes not just everyone who works in the Robert Schuman Centre, but also across the EUI as a scholarly community. If I am lucky, I will make some progress on these fronts before anyone unveils my imposter syndrome. It is a tremendous opportunity.

4. You are American, but have worked in Europe and on the European project for many years. What do you believe is Europe’s role in today’s world?

This is a subject for a much longer conversation. Let’s just say for now that I think Europe has an essential role to play in the world – and not just as an example. Part of that role is to redress some of the impact that Europeans had in the past; part of it is to push back against some of the excesses of U.S. foreign policy; and part is to build relationships with other countries that carry the best of our shared values within them. These parts do not constitute the whole of Europe’s world role. That larger role is something that Europeans will have to determine. But as an American I can say that the United States needs a partner in Europe in all senses of the word. That kind of partnership is difficult to manage, but it is definitely worth the effort.

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