Durham’s Institute of Advanced Study is distinctive in organising the core of its work around a rolling programme of thematic priorities. Annual themes have interdisciplinary appeal; they are controversial, lie at the cutting edge of research, and require urgent attention from more than one perspective. Typically, themes run across one academic year; sometimes they form a platform for a much longer programme of work; in other circumstances they provide a rapid response to urgent needs over just a few months.
In anticipation of the bicentenary of Darwin's birth in 2009, the Institute's inaugural theme in 2006/07 addressed the Legacy of Charles Darwin from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. The theme in 2007/08 was Modelling; interpreted in its broadest sense to be of wide appeal to a range of disciplines, this programme examined the value, strengths and weaknesses of a modelling culture upon which modern society has become so dependent. The 2008/09 theme was Being Human; a theme that aimed to address the fundamental question of what is it to be human in a 21st Century of increased technological intervention and growing demand to recognise the rights of nature and animals, but, ironically, at a time when half of humanity remains deprived of the right to a full life. The theme in 2009/10 was Water, something that pervades the arts and the sciences, both thematically and in the flesh, and is clearly a topic of growing global concern. In 2010/11 the IAS, in supporting a theme on Futures, sought to stimulate thinking on the question of what happens next. In 2011/12 the IAS continued to focus on the them of Futures and supported Futures II support a programme of work to enable intra- inter- and multi-disciplinary ventures that had the potential to become real centres of excellence for Durham in the future. The 2012/13 theme was Time. With this theme the IAS sought to stimulate new thinking about Time: How do disciplines from physics to philosophy think about time? How has time been imagined in different cultural and historical contexts? How do ideas about time shape nations and their ‘heritage’? How is temporality experienced and described? And how do technological advances in ways of measuring time change people’s experiences of it, and enable different ways of moving through and narrating time and space? Leading figures were invited to Durham to consider Time from differing perspectives. Their unique contributions and inspiration during the year led to excellent outputs and the development. The 2013/14 was Light; a theme that explored links between the physics of light, the perceptions of light, the emotive effects of light and the representation of light in theology, philosophy and literature. It examined how light affects health and well-being as well as providing the opportunity to explore the fundamental properties of light - a substance that still has not lost its ability to surprise and delight. Emergence was the Institute's 2014/15 theme which opened up ways to explore how and why emergence occurs, seeking to understand causality, emergent events and their effects by bringing together diverse perspectives from the social and physical sciences, the arts, and the humanities. It encapsulated the core aims of the IAS: by fostering interdisciplinary collaborations and sharing the distinct strengths of different approaches to research questions, we seek to enable the emergence of novelty in intellectual debates. The IAS theme for 2015/16 was Evidence and fostered dialogue between disciplines, and between academics and research users, about the role of evidence in academic enquiry, policy and everyday life. Evidence was explored in several ways: how evidence is constituted; how it is read, understood and evaluated; and how it is used. Information becomes evidence when it is assessed in relation to specific questions and discursive practices. This is a recursive relationship: evidence and the framework in which it is located are mutually constitutive.
The current 2016/17/ is Scale which can be interpreted spatially, temporally or conceptually. Scale refers both to things measured and how measurement is done. This research theme is predicated on the idea that seeking common aspects to the study of scale and its effects has the potential to unite, compare and/or contrast phenomena and ideas across all disciplines.
The theme for 2017/18 is Structure.