Ellen Moors: “Our research must meaningfully contribute to the huge challenges facing society”

Photo of Ellen Moors

In April 2022, Prof. Ellen Moors was appointed director of the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development. Now one year since taking the helm, we sit down to hear about what she enjoys most about the job, as well as her hopes for how the institute can make an impact in a time of global change and societal upheaval. “Our research must meaningfully contribute to the huge challenges facing society,” she says.

The Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, or the Department of Sustainable Development as it is internally known, is perhaps unsurprisingly from its name the scientific research institute for sustainability at Utrecht University. Nestled in the Faculty of Geosciences at Utrecht Science Park, it uniquely brings together researchers from both the natural and social sciences working on topics as far-ranging as renewable energy integration, circular business models, ecosystem resilience and the politics of environmental treaties. “I find this diversity of approaches and perspectives incredibly inspiring,” Moors says enthusiastically.

My work here is done if after four years everyone working at our institute – both new and old – is flourishing

Originally a biochemist, Moors joined the Copernicus Institute in 2000, where her research focus eventually settled on exploring the sustainability of health innovations from a user and institutional perspective. She was appointed Professor of Innovation and Sustainability in 2012 and joined the department board as research director in 2019. In 2022 she took over the role of director from Marko Hekkert, who in January 2023 began as director of Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL).

Research with impact

For Moors, striving for international recognition as an institution of excellence goes without saying. “But perhaps more important is being able to make meaningful contributions towards the incredibly complex challenges we are facing as a society,” she reflects. The institute’s focus on transformation processes is key here. “Our research tackles these challenges from a  scientific, technical, ecological and social perspective, and through collaborating with the rich diversity of actors that are central to making these sustainable and just transformations happen”.

In an era where the unequally distributed impacts of climate change are well understood, Moors is exploring how the institute can connect more with universities in the Global South. “At the moment we are trying to develop long-lasting and equitable collaborations, avoiding the in-and-out helicopter research trap that researchers can easily fall into,” she says. “Any research collaboration or education exchange needs to be productive and beneficial for both parties”.

A flourishing workplace

Over the past few years, the institute has grown extraordinarily. “It is becoming even more dynamic than it already was,” says Moors. From junior researcher to lecturer and from assistant professor to full professor, it now stands at a cozy 280 people. 50% hail from outside the Netherlands, and 25% from outside the EU. “Guiding this growth in the right direction is really important to me”. She explains that it’s a top priority to foster an inclusive workplace where everyone feels at home, no matter where they are from. “My work here is done if after four years everyone working at our institute – both new and old – is flourishing,” she says.

Our students are the change-makers of tomorrow, we mustn’t forget that

And what about teaching? Moors loves working with students. “I still get inspired when I give classes, they have so many ideas and remind us of what's important to the next generation.” The institute is experimenting with innovative interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaching methods. “Our students increasingly learn outside of the traditional lecture theatre, for example through collaborating with societal partners to co-create solutions to real life sustainability issues,” she explains. She also sees teaching as a huge avenue for impact. “Our students are the change-makers of tomorrow, we mustn’t forget that”.

As a final question, we ask if topics like ecosystem destruction, missed international targets, and imminent tipping points get depressing. Of course, she answers. “But the fact that our researchers are so excited to make the world a better place gives me a lot of energy and makes me positively look forward to taking the Copernicus Institute through the next few years.”