Sune Lehmann Jørgensen. Photo credit Mikal Schlosser

Sune Lehmann: Freedom, community and immersion are the cornerstones of a good research environment

Friday 07 Jul 23


Sune Lehmann Jørgensen
DTU Compute
+45 45 25 39 04

This year’s research environment award goes to the interdisciplinary research group Social Complexity Lab at DTU and the University of Copenhagen. Professor Sune Lehmann has built up the research environment so that you both keep a tab on the research and let loose in an environment where you look after each other while doing world-class research. Here he gives a unique insight into his thoughts on research management and how he approaches it.

When the Danish Young Academy recently awarded the Danish Young Academy's Research Environment of the Year 2023, it went to the interdisciplinary research group Social Complexity Lab at DTU Compute and SODAS, the Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science at the University of Copenhagen. Two young researchers from the group had nominated the research group for the award.

Several studies have shown that a large proportion of Danish PhD students experience work-related problems with their mental health due to high work pressure and stress. Therefore it is natural to ask what others can learn from Social Complexity Lab's way of organizing the research on?

In short, the group has two weekly group days with structured content, meetings, and communities, while there are much freer working conditions for the rest of the week. And the researchers are encouraged to protect their lives outside of research, and they hold weekly meetings where they openly talk about the missteps that each of them - both senior and junior researchers - made during the week.

Professor Sune Lehmann leads the research group of approximately 14 researchers together with assistant professor Laura Alessandretti, who was previously a postdoc with him. We have asked him to tell us about his thoughts on how to create a good research environment. You can read his answers in the text below.

Sune Lehmann on the balance between keeping a tab on research and letting go

“My challenge has been how to make a group where people feel good but at the same time do world-class research. There are many examples of people who are doing world-class research but who are having a terrible time all because it's hard and so on. There are also many examples of research environments where people have a great time, but where nothing really comes of it. So, how do you create an environment where both are possible?

The first step is about the concept of psychological safety. Back in 2016, I read about how Google had been working for years to build perfect teams. Understanding what made some teams do great and some fail spectacularly. They threw teams of researchers at the problem, applied a wide range of algorithms and analyzed the millions of data points that exist about each of their employees, but ran up against a wall. They couldn't find any patterns. There was a lack of commonality between the groups that worked well!


It was only when the Google researchers stopped looking at data and started talking to people that commonalities emerged. The groups that worked well were places where everyone felt they could open their mouths and share their thoughts and ideas about things big and small without fear of being teased, belittled, or punished. Groups where you could say exactly what you thought. Where you could take chances with crazy and fun ideas. And groups characterized by such psychological safety were more productive, creative, and members loved their work.


For me, that term captured exactly the research environment that I had intuitively tried to create. Now there was even deep research behind it. So, the first step to establishing new, creative and wild ideas is to ensure that everyone is comfortable.


The next step is for research to make sense to the individual group member. By having great freedom, e.g. to choose the subject of one's research, and to choose models and strategies for how to attack a given problem. By shaping your purpose yourself, you develop ownership. That's what I'm aiming for. Making them feel that they own their research.


 The last part is that all this happens in an environment where we quite naturally perceive ourselves as part of the world elite. Where it goes without saying that our articles must have a level where they appear in the best journals and challenge ideas coming from the world's best universities. I usually say that we joke about everything ... but with one exception ... we never compromise on the quality of work. The job is to develop sets of ideas where nothing can be better because we have done our absolute best with every detail.

It sounds far-fetched to say this in a country like Denmark, but this is how I try to train them to think: Of course we can achieve the exceptional.


When these components are in place, research can become the place where you realize yourself. You are free to come up with wild ideas, you want to surpass your own ideas from yesterday; you experience in many ways that doing research is an exciting and creative expression of who you are. In other words, they want their research to be fantastically good, because their work shows who they are and how they solve hugely complicated problems with elegance and creativity. I believe that deep down humans love to create things of exceptional quality and beauty. Things that represent the best you can achieve. It is that drive that I try to awaken in the students.


Perhaps it is also important to say that we do not expect international success with every project. But we aim for it. And if it doesn't work, we share the experience of what it was like to be rejected - and try again. I also talk about my own dark moments, so that everyone knows that it is not all a bed of roses - and that it is not only those who can experience serious hardship.


I find that because these young people are so insanely talented and so creative and inspiring, they almost always transform this freedom in some absolutely fantastic way, where they come to me and say: "Hey, try to see this I have made.” So I'm just sitting there thinking it's really cool, right? There I can then give them countermeasures with the experience that I have and the knowledge of the subject that I have, so that I can help them to do even better.


In order for something to be exciting, for me it means that you have to make an effort with it. So the way things get exciting - whatever it is, is by trying to do it really well. So I think a lot about how we plan things. Both how it feels from their side and how it feels from my side. So over time we have tried all sorts of different versions of how the group should function.


There are also practical considerations that come into play. So that we don't have to e-mail each other and spend a lot of time finding space in the calendar to squeeze in a meeting, we have reserved one day to talk together. This sometimes means that you only need to talk for a quarter of an hour. Other times you need to talk for a long time together, and then you do that.


We have learned that it is not necessarily good to just set aside an hour. Because there is nothing that feels worse than if we sit and work on some complicated problem and then have to stop just when we are on the way to a breakthrough, because now something else happens. So, we have found some structures that enable us to support how research works in practice,” says Sune Lehmann.


Free culture, but the researchers know where I (Sune) am


"We are lucky enough that the group can move around, and there is room for them to be both at DTU and at SODAS - Copenhagen Center for Social Data Science - at the University of Copenhagen. So therefore, it works quite naturally that I let them know where I am. If they want to be by themselves and not have anything to do with me, then they can go where I'm not. And if they want to talk, they can go where I am. So, they can also jump around depending on what they're in the mood for and who they need to talk to, etc.

It is also related to what they work with and what they work on. If they need to spar with someone who has deep machine learning knowledge, then it makes sense to be at DTU. If they need to spar with someone who knows something about anthropology, sociology, and economics, they can sit on SODAS. So, they are lucky that they have access to two environments.


In practice, I find that in some periods people sit here, other periods are very much at SODAS. So, it sort of regulates itself. I try to set some framework so that they can get all the support and help they need, but that there is also room for them to work more freely if they feel like it. Of course, I manage PhD students somewhat more than postdocs, because they are new and need it, so we make sure we talk to each other once a week, because otherwise it can get a bit flighty with all that freedom. We also try to calibrate it based on what they need.


People are also very different, and part of what is needed to create a good environment is that we remember that people are individuals and that you can take into account that there are just as many different ways of doing super good research as there are people. In the research world, there are many different personalities, and you have to create a culture where there is room for everyone professionally, but also humanly.


Maybe it's a bit of a flat analogy, but in many ways, I think of the guidance role as a kind of gardening job. Like plants, people have wildly different needs. Some need sun, some need shade, and fertilizer is needed at different times, etc. And it's not just purely professional, but also when a person really needs a little space because something big or difficult is happening in their personal life.


Somehow, at least our group has managed to function well with the very free culture, and I don't know if it's luck or common sense. But I think part of it is precisely about having a culture. It's a bit like a college, where people begin fit in and find their place in the community.


It is of course a challenge to try to create an environment that gives a sense of coherence and identity, even if people flow through relatively quickly. People are only here for one, two or three years, and the group is broadly composed. I think, as I said, that it is very much about creating a culture where we say that we treat each other properly, we look after each other, we respect each other, we are inclusive of each other, we listen to each other, and we do not take many things super seriously. The only thing we really take seriously is that we have to do world-class research, and there we support each other in research and make room for diversity," Sune Lehmann says.

How was it to become a research leader?

Sune Lehmann has been a research leader since he received money from the Villum Fonden in 2011 for the large research project 'SensibleDTU' about using mobile data to see how people move around and interact with each other. How did he experience the transition from research to management?

“It was quite an eye-opener to suddenly be in charge of these amazing young people and I want to make sure they get a good job. And I want to make sure that we can continue to do great research, even though I'm not in control of everything, details, etc. So, I've spent a huge amount of energy thinking about those things and trying to do it well.

Within the world of research, you train year after year after year to become super good at sitting and geeking out with one specific thing. You do that in your master's, in your PhD and in your postdoc. It is about being professionally skilled. When you finish and get a permanent job as a researcher, you suddenly learn that it is actually something completely different that you have to be good at. Now you have to be good at leading a research group. And that's just a completely different task. It's a huge challenge, and it felt like a huge challenge, and researchers aren't the easiest to lead to begin with, I think,” Sune Lehmann says.

What does it mean to you to receive the research environment award?


“I am crazy happy about Danish Young Academy's Research Environment of the Year 2023, and I am proud and touched that the group has won that award - and it is actually young people from our own group who have nominated us for the award. I can hardly imagine anything finer than that we have created a place where it is enjoyable to be. It is what I have hoped for and dreamed of, but it is always difficult to know whether it will actually succeed. So the fact that the environment is rewarded with an award like this really means a lot. Because it's something I care about and it's something I work hard for.

I have had the feeling that we work well. But we don't sit and praise the working environment when we meet. So sometimes I've wondered if it's just me who thinks things are going well. So this is huge and I'm really, really happy and proud.

At the same time, the research environment award is huge praise for the fact that things have gone well in a completely different dimension than the dimension I am used to doing well within. So it's truly fantastic,” Sune Lehmann says.

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