Utrecht plots new way to tackle societal challenges

Together with its partners, Utrecht University has made plans to tackle 14 key societal challenges, for which purpose it will allocate €26 million (US$32 million) over the next four years. Fourteen multidisciplinary hubs were selected by the university board after an application round with intense discussions on strategic priorities.

Rector Magnificus Bert van der Zwaan describes it as a logical step. “With regard to its four strategic research themes, Utrecht University has already made significant progress in applying expertise from various scientific disciplines to societally relevant topics such as health, governance, the environment and parenting. This has earned us quite a few plaudits.

“We are now working towards a more focused approach. Our aim is to increase our impact by tackling specific key challenges in a multidisciplinary way, together with our social partners. To this end, we have identified 14 so-called hubs.”

He said: “Try picturing the hubs as giant landing stages, where numerous societal ‘vessels’ – such as other knowledge institutions, businesses, government authorities, NGOs and lobby groups – gather to make landfall and do business.”

Four strategic areas

The hubs address four strategic areas: life sciences, sustainability, institutions for open societies, and dynamics of youth.

The four hubs within life sciences are:
  • Utrecht Advanced In Vitro Models: How can the co-creation, application and valorisation of in vitro models using beyond state-of-the-art technologies be improved leading to the reduction of animal experimentation?
  • Exposome: How does the totality of exposures that a person experiences combined with the associated biological response, relate to health and disease?
  • Utrecht Molecular Immunology Hub: Structural and functional immunology as foundation for immunomodulation and immunotherapy;
  • Utrecht Platform for Organoid Technology: How can the use of organoid models be optimised and improved in order to develop organoid based tests for personalised medicine?
The four hubs within sustainability are:
  • Towards Industry with Negative Emissions: How will new technologies and societal choices shape the future of industry?
  • Future Food: Pathways towards healthy planet diets – How can we realise our striving for diets that are both good for the planet and all its inhabitants?
  • Transforming Infrastructures for Sustainable Cities: How do we envision and identify pathways to cities and infrastructures of the future?
  • Water, Climate and Future Deltas: How can we design and evaluate pathways to sustainable deltas in the future?
The five hubs within institutions for open societies are:
  • Future of Work: What are the societal consequences of technological developments and globalisation in terms of quality of work, life and (in)equality for workers, organisations and households?
  • Future of Citizen-based Initiatives: How can processes of 'bottom-up' cooperation among citizens, between citizens and governments and-or business partners lead to an open and more resilient society?
  • Security in Open Societies: How do emerging forms of security governance transform our public institutions, our communities and our ways of life; how can these changes be understood, and what implications do they have for maintaining and strengthening open societies?
  • Gender and Diversity: How can we achieve societal inclusion and change?
  • Entrepreneurship for Social Challenges: Can social entrepreneurship contribute to a sustainable, just and inclusive society and how?
Within the strategic area dynamics of youth, a single hub will be realised:

  • Child Expertise Center, including six theme projects and a solid ICT and data infrastructure as its backbone, including the YOUth cohort study.
A new way of thinking

Van der Zwaan indicates that while collaborations with social partners are not a new development, the scale on which they currently take place is new. The university itself will invest €26 million over the next four years, not including investments in facilities and large equipment.

The word ‘hub’ was introduced in the Utrecht University’s strategic plan: “By 2020, each strategic theme will have established one or more hubs. In these interdisciplinary hubs, interdisciplinary teams will work with national and international partners on solutions to major societal challenges,” the strategic plan stated.

Utrecht University believes researchers need to get out of their bubbles and actively seek out collaboration – not just with other research institutes, but also with corporations, governmental bodies, NGOs, interest groups, etc.

This is not a new message. Last year, a committee concluded that Utrecht University’s research was of high quality, but lacked societal impact and visibility. That is also what government, civilians and financers want, it says. They are all asking, ‘what use is the research?’ and ‘what’s in it for us?’.

Van der Zwaan is convinced that this approach will lead to more impact, increased visibility and increased opportunities to attract funding.

“That includes funding for fundamental research, which is needed to crack this case and solve these key challenges. This is our ultimate objective.”

Agent of change

Professor Dr Maarten Hajer, scientific director of the Pathways to Sustainability programme, said: “Sustainability is our collective wake up call. The challenge is not to define our problems but to think of pathways towards sustainability.

“This requires new imaginative collaborative work. Utrecht University has a stunning track record in sustainability science. Now we want to see how the university can become an agent of change, bringing together the best of research across a much broader range of subjects.”

Professor Dr Peter Luijten and Professor Dr Piet Gros, who are working within the hubs of life sciences, said: “Utrecht life sciences has a longstanding tradition in interdisciplinary research. This is exemplified in our four hubs. We aim to build excellent research communities beyond the traditional borders of academic research groups, connecting external partners from across a regional and global network of research institutes, non-governmental organisations, patient organisations, government and-or private companies”.

Professor Dr Chantal Kemner, scientific director for the Dynamics of Youth programme, said: “It is amazing to consider how much we have yet to find out about child development. To understand how people develop into who they are, you need to see the bigger picture.

“The Child Expertise Center serves as a breeding ground for interdisciplinary research and offers opportunities for collaboration between knowledge institutions, civil society organisations and the business community. Research at the Child Expertise Center is supported and promoted through the latest research facilities, such as common data sets and labs.”

Professor Dr Bas van Bavel, scientific director of the Institutions for Open Societies programme, said: “The launch of the hubs heralds a welcome new phase in the expansion of our strategic theme. Together with our social partners, we conduct interdisciplinary research to tackle specific challenges in developing and nurturing open societies.

“Institutions for Open Societies advances this objective by asking questions and proposing solutions in its hubs on the future of labour, citizens' collectives, security, social entrepreneurship and diversity.”

University World News asked Van der Zwaan what the challenges and advantages were of joining forces with other partners in this way.

He said science plays a key role in the search for smart and sustainable solutions to societal challenges. The university's four strategic themes deliver an important contribution to such fields as health, governance, climate, the environment and parenting.

“Hubs are the logical next step towards a more focused research approach. This increases the impact as well as the visibility of research, as so much great research remains under-reported. Difficult and complex challenges require a multidisciplinary approach, often even involving natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.”

He added: “Our university plays a crucial and leading role, but we cannot do it all on our own. Innovation, new insights and a social impact require not only collaborations between disciplines but also collaborations with partners. Our old knowledge-driven approach is quite simply insufficient. We need co-creation.”

Integrating universities with society

He said the approach helps to integrate universities with society and university's activities with societal needs – contrary to the current populist argument that universities are out of touch, elite and aloof.

“By using this method of focusing research resources and activities, we make it very clear that the university is in touch, and contributing to the key challenges,” he said.

“Take future food, for instance. Food is important to us all. It is produced in complex global networks. The search is for catalysts of change; small interventions with big effects. Our ambition is to strive for diets that are both good for the planet and for all its inhabitants.

“Hubs are the ultimate representation of a new way of thinking: one that is not based on the application or 'valorisation' of previously acquired academic knowledge but on joining forces with others to ponder research questions and strategies that are relevant to society.”

Hajer, working on the sustainability theme, said that the researchers will also profit from the hubs’ experience. He’d like to appoint a professor with explicit expertise in transdisciplinary research and employ guest lecturers to further spread the knowledge of these new research methods.

“The hubs will ensure we’ll do something that’s different from what scientists usually do. If this succeeds, we’ll have built relationships with societal parties, and new questions will surely arise. There’s a bigger chance that the research proposals that will follow are going to be approved, because you’ll have your network and your transdisciplinary methods: rigour meets relevance.”

Model for other countries?

University World News asked Mats Benner, professor in science policy studies at Sweden’s Lund University and visiting professor at King’s College London, if the Utrecht University hubs could be a model for Swedish universities now being examined by a government-appointed investigator for better governance and use of resources.

Benner told University World News: “This is an exciting proposal which could be part of the planned system of agreements between the government and universities in Sweden. Part of those negotiations, if they will be realised, could be profiled research hubs along the lines developed in Utrecht.

“From a Swedish perspective, it is quite impressive to observe the capacity of Dutch universities to self-organise – and preclude government interventions – by forging such hubs, which clearly is an attractive alternative to the kind of invasive and potentially wasteful government micro-interventions which have characterised Swedish research policy in recent years.”