Eighteen Utrecht-based academics receive grants for unusual collaborations

What happens if you have an organisational psychologist, a veterinarian researcher and a neuroscientist look at a social issue together? Or a developmental biologist, an art historian and an expert in hydrogeology? Eighteen Utrecht-based researchers are going to discover this. They all received a so-called ‘Unusual Collaborations Grant’. The grant, which was founded by the Eindhoven-Wageningen-Utrecht Alliance, has the goal to encourage collaboration between various disciplines.

What is unique about the awarded project grants is that academics are not only challenged to collaborate with researchers from other faculties within their own university, but also get to work with colleagues from other universities. In each of the approved projects, the Utrecht-based researchers collaborate with academics from Wageningen and/or Eindhoven. The grants enables 31 researchers, including eighteen from Utrecht, to get to work on social issues. They do this within four projects. Below, you will find an overview of those projects, which Utrecht-based researchers are involved and why the jury awarded grants to the projects.

Structures of Strength

Our world is being confronted with bigger and bigger social challenges resulting from complex issues such as global warming and COVID-19. Solutions to these complex challenges require collaboration on the intersections of disciplines. But how do you make sure that researchers from various disciplines find each other? The academics involved in the project Structures of Strength are going to create a platform where researchers from various fields of expertise can utilise their knowledge together to develop solutions to issues in the fields of health, food, energy, culture and environment.

The involved researchers want to apply the strength of that approach to something that connects various fields of expertise: porous materials. Be it in biology, medicine or cultural heritage, you can find porous materials everywhere. From leaves to body tissue, from rocks to diapers and from food items to paint. Researcher Amir Raoof says: “In medicine, the knowledge of the porosity of bones and other tissues is used more and more actively for improving the delivery of medicines and the prevention of diseases. In art, we are dealing with materials such as paint and sculptors’ media. The porosity of these materials can change the way in which an artist uses it and influences the sustainability of the artwork. And water purification uses sand with a specific pore structure that filters bacteria and viruses." Within the project, Raoof and his colleagues will combine the knowledge from all kinds of fields of expertise in order to learn what the common features are between various materials, and use that combined knowledge for more effective solutions to issues.

The jury writes: “Porous materials are everywhere. This seemingly simple observation reveals the hidden common features, the intersections between all these disciplines. This excellent and original project will unite a big variety of disciplines that work on porous materials in order to effectively learn from each others' methodologies.”

Involved Utrecht-based researchersAmir Raoof (Geosciences), Noortje IJssennagger (University Medical Center Utrecht), Sanli Faez (Science), Mike Boxem (Science) en Marjolijn Bol (Humanities)

Data Driven Dashboard

The current way of food production and consumption leads to big environmental problems. This also makes the reorientation from agriculture to a sustainable future a big social challenge. Circular agriculture is a promising vision on how sufficient, affordable and safe food can be produced and sustainability issues can be limited at the same time. But the transition to circular agriculture is dependent on the support from farmers, consumers and social stakeholders. How do you create such a support base? When it is clear how the costs and benefits are shared fairly. That is why within this project, researchers will develop a ‘circular agriculture dashboard’. For this purpose, researchers from the fields of Veterinary Medicine, data science, sociology and agricultural corporate economy will join forces. According to the jury, this collaboration is not only unusual, but also vital.

Involved Utrecht-based researcher: Wilma Steeneveld (Veterinary Medicine)

The Power of One

The current approach to individuals' medical, financial and work-related issues often does not succeed in actually helping them. Researchers and professionals focus on what they see as the average individual, which results in them not recognising those who are in part or fully outside of that scope. "Such as: a woman with heart symptoms who is functionally illiterate and cannot properly explain what her symptoms are because of that,” says researcher Martine Veldhuizen.

These ‘unseen people’ generally suffer from a coherent complex of social issues and ailments, and/or they belong to marginalised groups. There is a consistent lack of data on the needs of these groups. In this project, the researchers want to map out these unheard voices. This will make (research) data eventually more inclusive. According to the jury of the Unusual Collaborations Grant, the researchers are really going to discover new territory by providing support to the people who are not your usual suspects. Veldhuizen says: “Nobody usually burns their fingers on such big topics, because there is no time and money for it. I think it is a relief that we don't have to elbow our way through now, but do it together instead.”

Involved Utrecht-based researchersJojanneke van der Toorn (Social and Behavioural Sciences), Merel van Goch (Humanities), Martine Veldhuizen (Humanities), Lieke Stelling (Humanities) en Marianne Boes (University Medical Center Utrecht).

Defeating Chronic Pain

Pain can be many things: Pain can be protective (according to a biologist), a taboo (to a cultural specialist), an economic burden (to an economist), crippling (to a patient), treatable (to a doctor), measurable (to a materials engineer), spiritual (according to the philosopher), observable (to a doctor or veterinarian) and can be considered chronic if it persists for at least three months. Approximately 3 million adults in the Netherlands alone have chronic pain, a number that is expected to rise. The researchers of this project expect that failing to treat chronic pain is the result of a lack of insight in the way in which chronic pain is defined by the involved parties. That is why they will investigate pain in both humans and animals in order to better understand patients' pain experiences. The results will eventually be compiled in a database.

According to the jury, this project is unique because pain is observed from a very broad variety of fields of expertise, so from both the medical angle and from Humanities. And that besides that, they not only look at the way in which humans experience pain, but also how animals experience it.

Involved Utrecht-based researchers: Hanneke Willemen (University Medical Center Utrecht), Mienke Rijsdijk (University Medical Center Utrecht), Madelijn Strick (Social and Behavioural Sciences), Tessa van Charldorp (Humanities), Janny de Grauw (Veterinary Medicine), Frank Meye (University Medical Center Utrecht) en Martijn Froeling (University Medical Center Utrecht)

The Unusual Collaborations Grant is awarded by the Centre for Unusual Collaborations. This centre is founded from the Eindhoven-Wageningen-Utrecht Alliance that was officially launched in December 2020. Within the alliance, Eindhoven University of Technology, Wageningen University & Research, Utrecht University and University Medical Center Utrecht connect their knowledge in order to contribute to social transitions in the fields of energy, sustainability, health and nutrition. In the upcoming eight years, all four knowledge institutions will invest one hundred million euros in collaborative research and education projects in order to solve global issues. The motto of the collaboration is "Challenging future generations". A total of 830,000 euros has been divided among the four projects that have received Unusual Collaboration Grants. The exact allocation of the money across the four projects has been determined by all involved researchers.