Meet the Researchers
What is like being a researcher?
It is an amazing opportunity to think differently, but at times it is quite daunting because you really have to be your own boss – and a strict one at that – managing your time, limiting and your focus your energies and ideas. Potentially the whole world is there to explore, but our value comes, to some extent, from exploring particular issues in a way that does justice to their depth and complexity – as well as to the importance and impact they have for peoples’ lives.
What inspired you to become a researcher?
Specifically, I could point to the experience of a long queue at the Ukrainian-Polish border on a freezing night in December 2007, when taking my last (homeward) journey under diplomatic protection. The queue to enter what was (in less than a fortnight) about to become not only EU but Schengen territory was approximately 5km long, without food or toilet facilities, but with an abundance of motorists huddled in Ladas of various vintages, struggling to balance the needs of sleep, warmth and the attentiveness to seize the chance of slight forward motion. Many had abandoned the last part and had resigned themselves to bedding in for a stagnant night on these Eastern approaches to the EU. Coming the other way, from Poland to Ukraine, border-crossings were taking only ten minutes. Moreover they were being expedited without the humiliating and suspicious deconstruction of identity and belongings in the name of protecting the budgetary integrity and moral decency of the Europeans who, like me, get to live in ‘EUrope’.
More generally, the rationale for my research comes frommMy professional experience of working for the EU in the Balkans and former Soviet Union – I worked as a political and strategic advisor on security and border missions and wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the situations I worked in and provide the basis for influencing better policy outcomes. Becoming a researcher provided the possibility to take look at and think differently about the situations that I was concerned about, while my practical, professional experience and continued involvement in the region means that my research is firmly connected to real-life situations.
What is the best thing about being a researcher/your job?
The possibility to gain a different understanding of complex issues such as the ones I was working on. As a researcher you have the time, space and in my case, the support of an excellent supervisor to approach issues in a deeper way than when you are caught in the daily flux of a demanding job.
If you could go back in time which scientist/researcher/historical figure would you like to meet and what would you ask them?
I would like to provoke a conversation between the philosopher and historian Michel Foucault, the artist Joseph Beuys, the novelist WG Sebald and former Czech dissident and later President Vaclav Havel. I would be most interested to hear how they spoke about the connections and contradictions between art and politics and between theory and practice, each of which they dealt with in different and beautiful ways.
What do you do in your free time?
I enjoy art, architecture and travel, all of which I enjoy most in the company of my girlfriend Anna (who is an amazing supporter of me, my work and my research) as well as playing tennis and exploring the depth and breadth of central European beer culture …
What is the first ‘science’ you remember doing?
An experiment on a chemistry set that I got for Christmas! Although I also have strong memories from childhood of a school project on ‘Flight’ that I loved doing together with my Mum and of my Dad’s infectious enthusiasm for and excellence at explaining all sorts of scientific concepts – even if I’m still not quite sure that I understand Einstein’s theory of relativity. My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted, but were instrumental in planting and nurturing the curiosity to ask questions about the world and promoting science and social research as ways of starting to answer them!
What’s the funniest/strangest/most surprising experience you have had in your career?
Being mistaken for an Albanian pop star while working for the EU and being mobbed by a crowd of teenagers when entering an Albanian village!
As a researcher it would be walking into a hostel where I had booked to stay in Odessa, Ukraine and being asked “Are you the Benjamin Tallis?” The hostel owner had read an academic paper that I had published a few years ago, with Xymena Kurowska or Central European University and was eager to talk about it – it was a great moment for ‘research impact’!
What discovery or invention could you not live without?
The European Union.
What do you think is the most important thing yet to be discovered/invented?
A way of making the European Union effective, democratic, fairer and more engaging for European people , wherever they live.