• Background
  • Text: Marion de Boo
  • Picture: Maurice van den Bosch

Science with a Soul: Tilburg University launches its Impact Program

Are we relevant? This was the question posed by rector Emile Aarts in his Dies Natalis (Founder’s Day) address. A Google search for ‘Tilburg University’ and ‘impact’ returns almost 485,000 hits. But there is still room for improvement, the university believes. To strengthen its connections with society yet further, Tilburg University has launched an Impact Program which focuses on three highly relevant themes: Enhancing Health and Wellbeing, Empowering the Resilient Society, and Creating Value from Data.

Creating Value from Data

Humans may be the most intelligent living creatures on earth, but computers which will always win a game of chess have been with us since the 1980s. There are many other areas in which Artificial Intelligence is overtaking our own. To remain relevant in the technological and digital revolution, Tilburg University is to give much of its education and research an extra boost with an Impact Program which centers on three highly relevant societal themes. One such theme is Creating Value from Data. “How do we wish to see science and technology developing?” asks mathematician Dick den Hertog, professor of Operations Research. “What can the concepts of data science and big data offer us? What new arrangements must we make with regard to privacy or intellectual property rights?”

Empowering the Resilient Society

Another relevant challenge is that of making society more resilient. “What holds our society together?” asks Ton Wilthagen, professor of labor market studies. “How should we respond to the major changes that we ourselves have set in motion? How do we prevent a social schism, with some people feeling excluded and losing their trust in society?” Research examining such questions falls within the theme Empowering the Resilient Society.

Enhancing Health & Wellbeing

There are also important research questions with regard to Health and Welfare. “We are living longer and working for longer,” says Johan Denollet, professor of medical psychology. “More people are now surviving cancer or a heart attack. They need aftercare and support as they learn to cope with their fears and uncertainties. Doctors should not merely order blood tests and perform physical examinations, they must look at the broader psychosocial context. In addition, an increasing number of seniors have several chronic conditions. How can concepts such as e-health, personalized medicine and big data influence their care? Are there privacy aspects which must be addressed? These research questions are part of the Enhancing Health and Wellbeing theme.

“Researchers from various disciplines must work together to find effective responses”

Dick den Hertog

All about connection

The three professors have presented their ideas and proposals for the coming five-year period. “Connection is our watchword,” states Den Hertog. “The major societal issues have many facets, which means that researchers from various disciplines must work together to find effective responses. Multidisciplinary cooperation will also serve to enhance the university’s profile and its connections with society and the private sector. It will improve our access to research funding at all levels, including the European programs. We are now actively looking for external partners who are stakeholders in the relevant issues and who wish to be involved in our research. We term this ‘co-creation’.”

Responsible mix

Discussions about the impact of research are nothing new, of course. Ton Wilthagen, who heads the Empowering the Resilient Society theme, remembers the debate that was ongoing when he was a student at Tilburg. “In the idealistic 1970s, universities were expected to help shape society. Later, the emphasis shifted to the status of the university itself, its place in the rankings and the number of publications it contributed to the leading journals. Since the most recent recession, the discussion has returned to the university’s contribution to society. However, it is not an ‘either or’ question. A responsible mix is both possible and necessary.”

National Research Agenda

Tilburg made an active contribution to the national debate about universities’ social responsibility. That debate prompted the production of the National Research Agenda. “The three themes of our Impact Program are very much in line with the national ambitions,” states Wilthagen. “They are also very appropriate to the Tilburg philosophy of promoting social progress. We are not so much concerned with technological solutions to climate change, for example, but we do consider aspects such as climate refugees and other migration flows created by human interventions. Society must get back on track and it must innovate. It is up to us to solve the problems that we have created, otherwise it will be the weakest and most vulnerable in society who pay the price.”

“We will cooperate respecting each other’s role”

Ton Wilthagen

Unswayed by commercial interests

Academic freedom must remain a sine qua non, Wilthagen stresses. “A university is not a consultancy and paying the piper does not mean that you call the tune. We work with our external partners, not for them. We respect each other’s roles and responsibilities. We will never give way to commercial interests.” Fundamental research will remain important, states Johan Denollet. “The university is the best place in which to generate new and unexpected ideas. We must retain the freedom we need to do so, and we must continue to develop our creativity.”

A more valuable partner

Denollet is convinced that Tilburg will be able to generate greater societal impact by translating its research findings into practical applications. “And doing so will also increase scientific impact. The challenge is to create and maintain connections with the field: hospitals, rehabilitation centers, welfare organizations and health insurers. And we must also create connections within the university to bring together the knowledge generated within the various research projects. If we combine all the relevant expertise, we will be an even more valuable partner for the field.”

“The university is the best place in which to generate new and unexpected ideas”

Johan Denollet

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