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Profile (4)

Dr Niki Vermeulen, University of Edinburgh…

Profile (4)

Dr Niki Vermeulen

Lecturer in history/sociology of science and Wellcome Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh


Originally from Holland, Vermeulen has a PhD in Science and Technology Studies (STS) from Maastricht University. STS is a relatively new interdisciplinary field, combining history, philosophy and sociology to study the role of science and technology in our society. Vermeulen describes herself as “a social scientist specialising in science and innovation policy and the organisation of research, with an emphasis on scientific collaboration in the life sciences – or studying scientists and how they collaborate.” She chose this subject because she was fascinated with changes in the life sciences – e.g,. the increasing use of technologies and data, together with the rise of larger-scale projects in molecular biology such as the Human Genome Project – and wanted to know how this changed the life of scientists and their interaction with colleagues.

Vermeulen first came to the UK as a Marie Curie Research Fellow in STS at the University of York, then worked as a lecturer/researcher at the University of Vienna. In 2012, she received a Wellcome Trust Fellowship to study the history of systems biology at the University of Manchester, before coming to the University of Edinburgh in 2014 as a Lecturer in history/sociology of science.

Collaboration is key

In Vermeulen's view, although historians have studied scientific collaboration in physics, “the same is not so much true of biology,” despite the fact that natural historians were the first scientists to collaborate – forming networks to collect and identify species. Because it is impossible to get a systematic overview of life on Earth working alone, collaboration is essential, and Vermeulen is interested in how these collaborations are organised and how they function. She is also setting up a study to see “how the architecture of a research institute can influence the ways in which scientists interact.”

“Working together and across boundaries is not only what I study, but also what I enjoy doing myself,” says Vermeulen. “Working with people from all over the world has not only helped me to advance my intellectual career, but also taught me a lot about different cultures.”

Biggest threat to the environment?

“Next to global warming and other threads to biodiversity, such as the huge amounts of plastics in the oceans, the current trend is to retreat behind national borders again – e.g., Brexit. International collaboration is necessary to understand the global dynamics in our environment, past, present and future,” says Vermeulen.

Vermeulen also feels very strongly about the need for increased funding for biological sciences – especially biodiversity research. For example, her experience working on the Census of Marine Life has shown her “how little we know about what lives in the oceans,” and it is possible we’ll never know before it is gone. She adds: “I am very impressed by Boyan Slat and his Ocean Cleanup. In academia, the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) is an excellent initiative, bringing researchers together to discuss and model trends in biodiversity.”

Major challenges?

How to organise (international) collaboration across disciplinary, sectoral and national boundaries, including scientists and researchers from the social sciences and humanities, as well as schools, museums, cultural organisations, policy makers, politicians and business.

Endangered species?

Human beings – to survive, we will have to take better care of the environment and other species.

Biodiversity lessons?

“I was fortunate enough to co-author a publication with E.O. Wilson entitled Mapping the biosphere: exploring species to understand the origin, organization and sustainability of biodiversity which appeared in the journal Systematics and Biodiversity. This highlighted the need to collaborate in biodiversity research, to advance our understanding of life on Earth.


"Profile (4)". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-one)
Printed from on 04/07/20 12:11:07 AM

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