Sune Sunesson about his new role as scientific advisor

Sune Sunesson scientific advisor
Sune Sunesson

It continues where it all started. As Professor Sune Sunesson recently became a scientific adviser after six years as director of the Pufendorf Institute, he now returns to his old room, facing the back of the building. He is pleased that his work with the Institute is now taking on a new form – which will involve looking both to the past and towards the future.

This is the room where he spent most of his working days, after finishing his work as dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences. He had a lot of time left for research and, as a result, he became deeply involved in the preparations for setting up the Institute together with Professor Sture Forsén and former University vice-chancellor Göran Bexell – preparations which largely involved establishing support for the Institute’s interdisciplinary approach from the University Management.

“I’ve been involved in interdisciplinary research throughout my professional life. It was important for me to work with others. Early on, I recognised the value of bringing different disciplines together and looking at a problem from different perspectives”, says Sune Sunesson.

His fundamental conviction that issues and problems cannot be divided according to faculty boundaries and specific subjects has also defined his academic career – from his time as a sociologist in Stockholm, to being Lund University’s first professor of social work, to the role of dean, senior professor and, subsequently, director.

“When we started the Institute, Sture Forsén and I were strict about enforcing that all interdisciplinary initiatives were to come from below, that is, from the researchers themselves. For our view, we found support from other international institutes that used the same approach with great success.”

However, in the beginning it was difficult to get people to understand the Institute’s model, especially since most people were used to the pre-determined research areas prevalent at the time. There was also some degree of inertia within the University, based on distrust between disciplines and faculties, which partly persists to this day.

He believes it was a great advantage that both he and Sture Forsén had such long experience of working interdisciplinarily, as it enabled them to support the groups in their work in a way that helped the Pufendorf working model to take hold.

“We didn’t need to have our interests met immediately. We were able to lean back and let others try things in terms of new research areas and collaborations.”

Sune Sunesson was also involved in one of the first Advanced Study Groups (ASG), Water Systems and Society – an experience he believes meant a lot to his leadership, as it has made it easier for him to grasp and review applications. Many participants in the group are still linked to the Institute in different ways.

“I found it very fascinating. I think it has to do with the fact that the study of water and water systems clarifies how disciplines such as medicine, social sciences, and engineering interact with each other. It became sort of an awakening to me, even though I had worked with interdisciplinary research for a very long time.”

An established work approach

Under Sune Sunesson’s leadership, the Institute’s approach became increasingly established within and outside the University. He thinks this is due to different factors, not least that junior researchers today are interested in society in a different way. They want to cooperate and are concerned about the state of the world. This is reflected in the themes and ASGs that have worked at the Institute, in which climate, sustainability and nature have been a strong focus in recent years.

Another explanation is that the Pufendorf Institute’s model has been shown to benefit both individual researchers and academia as a whole. Of those who work or have worked at the Institute, many testify about the luxury of being able to reflect, think and discuss, without the requirement of producing research results.

“A researcher said the other day: ‘I only have one thing to say about the Pufendorf Institute: here you are allowed to think out loud’. I thought this was beautifully put. This is just the type of mental and physical breathing space that we want to create. That’s when research is truly allowed to push the boundaries.”

Sune Sunesson says that the science subjects have always been invited to participate in the themes and ASGs at the Pufendorf Institute, contrary to many other institutes set up as a friendly pat on the back to the humanities subjects. Furthermore, he believes such institutes often lose breadth because the more technical and traditionally hard knowledge areas are not included.

“When I compare us to other similar institutes I am pleased. We have managed to create something that is lasting and that encompasses the entire University. This is something I’m very proud of now as I approach the end of my time as director”, he says.

Looking back and ahead as a next step

In his new role as a scientific advisor, Sune Sunesson wants to look towards the future and continue to work on the initiatives he started in 2017: an initiative to promote interdisciplinary perspectives on migration research, and a major symposium to focus on interdisciplinary research as a research method – and the evaluation of the Pufendorf working model.

He will also look back and follow up on the themes and ASGs which have worked at the Institute. What are the researchers doing today, and what became of their research? He does not feel that he and the Institute are parting ways; rather, he is happy about the new form the work is now taking.

“If I may speak from a purely selfish point of view – I am a curious person. And there is nothing better than being in a place where curiosity is encouraged. It’s amazing how much you learn in this place.”

“I actually have one of the best jobs you can imagine. Just working with the applications every year is an entire University in itself”, he concludes.