Sustainability in Research

How does UU scientific research contribute to the transition to a sustainable society? From the mission of the university:

"We live in a rapidly changing world. Global issues are complex: they are not limited to generations or continents and cannot be solved from a single perspective. Themes such as climate change, wealth sharing and healthy living require an interdisciplinary approach. Scientific insights are needed to solve these issues'.

The university notes the outlines of the Strategic Plan 2020-2025:

Students and staff contribute to a better world. Our mission and the Sustainable Development Goals are an integral part of our education, research, impact and business operations'.

Pathways to Sustainability Conference 2019


The purpose of the indicators in this Annual Sustainability Report is to use figures to measure how Utrecht University is doing in terms of sustainability. Other than this, no figures are given in the chapter on Sustainability in research. Not only is it difficult to quantify sustainability in education and research, but in 2019 the UU also signed the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment, in which the university states future research will assessed less quantitatively and more qualitatively. The aim of this declaration (DORA) is no longer to rely on bibliometric indicators (such as publications and citations) when assessing research and researchers, but rather to apply a holistic, qualitative approach.

The university integrates sustainability into its research:

  • One of the university’s four strategic themes is Pathways to Sustainability. The focus of this theme is to develop integral solutions that contribute to a fairer and more sustainable future for everyone. In the other themes (Life Sciences, Dynamics of Youth and Institutions for Open Societies) a great deal of research is also carried out that contributes to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
  • The Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development focuses on transdisciplinary research into sustainable transformation.
  • The Centre for Global Challenges (UGlobe) focuses on global challenges from the perspective of the relationship between human rights, conflict & security, sustainability and equality.
  • The Institute for Environmental Biology develops sustainable solutions to societal challenges such as food security, the ecological consequences of a changing climate and the protection of our natural resources.
  • The Utrecht Centre for Water, Oceans and Sustainability Law investigates the law of water, environment, climate and sustainability.
  • The Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht (IMAU) investigates the oceans, atmosphere and cryosphere to contribute solutions for climate change.
  • The Social Entrepreneurship Initiative (SEI), stimulates education and research in the field of social entrepreneurship.
  • The UU collaborates intensively with the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ).
  • In the Urban Futures Studio, scientists from various backgrounds work on positive future scenarios for cities. The Urban Futures studio is a source for inventive, interdisciplinary approaches.

Activities 2019

This overview is a small selection of the many academic achievements during 2019 focused on sustainability.

  • UPlasticS3 network launched (Jan 2019)

Plastic waste is a major environmental problem, both in size and complexity. In the Utrecht Plastic Sources, Sinks and Solutions (UPlasticS3) network, researchers from various backgrounds are working on interdisciplinary solutions to this problem. The researchers met at the launch of ‘Skyscraper’ (plastic whale) in Utrecht in early 2019. The initiator, oceanographer Erik van Sebille, is also the person behind the ‘plastic soup’ website. On this website, students will find scientific information about the plastic problem in understandable language.


  • Pathways to Sustainability conference 2019 (Jan 2019)

Almost 500 participants followed the keynotes of Diederik Samsom and Harvard professor Sheila Jasanoff, among others.


  • The harvest of 7 months of ocean research: presentation final report NICO expedition (Feb 2019)

The NICO expedition (Netherlands Initiative Changing Oceans) was a scientific cruise on which more than 100 scientists from 20 organisations explored the changing oceans. Hundreds of water and sediment samples are still being examined in the lab. The first results led to a series of discoveries, for example, unusual blue-green algae mats that entangle the coral reefs off the coast of Bonaire, ocean fungi that could possibly be used for the development of new medicines or fuel and, the presence of plastic in the hydrothermal springs in the Azores - the possible source of life on earth.


  • Public-private partnership focuses on climate goals 2050 (Feb 2019)

In a new sustainable chemistry lab, researchers are developing new fuels and materials together with the chemical sector. By doing so, the chemical industry wants to contribute to the solution of the climate problem. The new lab is part of the Advanced Research Center Chemical Building Blocks Consortium (ARC CBBC) led by UU professor Bert Weckhuysen.


  • 1.4 million euros for additional NESSC climate researchers (March 2019)

The research programme Netherlands Earth System Science Centre (NESSC) will receive 1.4 million euros as an additional contribution for research into climate change. The grant, awarded by the European Marie Skłodowska-Curie COFUND programme, co-funds thirteen international PhD students.


  • UN report: Environmental targets not achievable without drastic change (March 2019)

The sixth Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-G) concluded that in order to achieve the internationally agreed environmental targets outlined in the Paris Agreement, a drastic change is needed. Paul Lucas of the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) and Prof. Detlef van Vuuren (PBL and UU) coordinated the scenario analyses in the report.


  • Utrecht researchers help Vietnam become climate-proof (April 2019)

Minister Nieuwenhuizen of Infrastructure and Water Management opened the 'Climate Proof Vietnam' programme in Hanoi. This programme, led by TU Delft, supports Vietnam in setting up new and attractive curricula at two Vietnamese universities in the field of water management so that more young Vietnamese will opt for this discipline. Physical geographers Esther Stouthamer and Maarten van der Vegt provide expertise from the UU.


  • New collaboration for climate resilient deltas in the global South (May 2019)

On 8 May, the UU, in cooperation with Deltares, RVO and LANDac, organised a meeting for the 'Dutch Diamonds in the Deltas' research programme in which scientists and societal stakeholders jointly search for sustainable delta interventions in the global South.


  • European Environmental Law Forum-Conference in Utrecht (Aug 2019)

More than 150 international jurists participated in this conference. The 7th EELF conference made an important contribution to the debate on the role of legal instruments in the transition to a low-carbon circular economy, sustainable water management and the conservation of biodiversity.


  • Utrecht Researchers involved in all six awarded Gravity Consortia

A new consortium led by Professor of Environmental Epidemiology and Exposome Analysis Roel Vermeulen are investigating which factors of daily life are important for our health and how these factors work. To this end, the consortium was awarded 17.4 million euros from NWO's prestigious Gravity Programme.


  • Alliance with TU Eindhoven, WUR and UMCU launched (Sep 2019)

In September UU, UMC Utrecht, TU Eindhoven and Wageningen University & Research announced their new strategic alliance. The focus of this alliance will be on areas where the most impact can be achieved for society; for example, system transitions in the fields of energy, nutrition, health and a circular society.


  • Utrecht Young Academy in action (Sep. 2019)

In September 2019, the Utrecht Young Academy (UYA) - a select group of enthusiastic and ambitious young academics at Utrecht University - declared the climate emergency. The UYA thus joined thousands of scientists worldwide who agree that the concerns of the climate strikers are justified.


  • UU involved in the implementation pilot for climate-proof neighbourhoods in the Utrecht region (Sep 2019)

The collaboration between various partners in the city of Utrecht around the Skyscraper project - the plastic whale that was placed in the Catharijnesingel - was the prelude to researchers from the faculties of Law, Economics, Governance & Organisation and Geosciences to participate in a project of the Utrecht region, to make five Utrecht residential areas resistant to extreme weather conditions.


  • Utrecht researches building materials based on fungi (Sep 2019)

New building material based on moulds. That is the idea behind the Fungar project, a collaboration between Utrecht, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Italy. The Fungar project received 2.85 million euros from the European Horizon 2020 programme, of which 720,000 euros will go to microbiologist Han Wösten and chemist Marc Baldus of Utrecht University.


  • Professor Backes - the much sought-after commentator on the nitrogen crisis

Chris Backes, Professor of Environmental Law at Utrecht University, was often interviewed by national media about (European) legal aspects of the nitrogen crisis in 2019. He gave interviews in the NOS Journaal, EenVandaag, the Financieele Dagblad and NRC Handelsblad.


  • New hub on circular economy and society (Nov 2019)

The Strategic Theme Pathways to Sustainability launched a new research hub ‘Towards a Circular Economy and Society’. The university wants to build a vibrant community for interdisciplinary research into the circular economy, and at the same time, establish the UU as a breeding ground for innovative research and education in this field.


  • KNAW Early Career Award Niko Wanders (Nov. 2019)

Physical geographer Niko Wanders has been awarded a KNAW Early Career Award for his research into weather extremes. Niko investigates the interaction between extreme drought, precipitation, climate change and human water use.


  • New public-private partnership for research into disease-resistant spinach (Nov 2019)

he Top Sector Horticulture & Starting Materials has allocated almost 1 million euros to Utrecht plant scientists and bioinformaticians for a research project into false mildew, the main pathogen of spinach. In the project UU’ers Guido van den Ackerveken, Ronnie de Jonge and Michael Seidl work together with four seed breeding companies.


  • Millions for research into large-scale energy storage (Dec 2019)

NWO has allocated 10 million for interdisciplinary research into large-scale energy storage. Chemist Petra de Jongh is one of the driving forces behind this RELEASE consortium (Reversible Large-scale Energy Storage). The consortium will investigate new technological possibilities in the field of hydrogen production, hydrocarbon production from CO2and flow batteries.


  • ERC Consolidator Grant Sander Thomaes (and 6 other UU researchers) (Dec 2019)

Developmental psychologist Sander Thomaes will use a grant from the European Research Council (ERC) to investigate how secondary school students can start to behave in a more eco-friendly way, so that their ideals are more in line with their behaviour.

For even more UU sustainability research, please visit the UU SDG website, or the sustainability research news page.

New chairs in 2019 contributing to Strategic Theme Pathways to Sustainability

  • Chair of 'Sea Level Change and Coastal Impacts' at the Faculty of Geosciences and the Faculty of Beta Sciences, Prof. Dr. R.S.W. van de Wal.
  • Special chair 'Global water and food security' at the Faculty of Geosciences, because of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) Prof. Dr. Y. Wada.
  • Chair 'Mountain water resources, hazards and climate change' at the Faculty of Geosciences, Prof. Dr. W.W. Immerzeel.
  • Chair 'Integrated Assessment Modelling of Global Environmental Change' at the Faculty of Geosciences, Prof. Dr. D.P. van Vuuren
  • Chair 'Climate System Science' at the faculty of Geosciences, W. Hazeleger
  • Chair 'Materials for Catalysis, Energy Conversion and Storage' at the Faculty of Beta Sciences, Mrs. Prof. Dr. P.E. de Jongh.
  • Chair 'Theory of Nanoscale Systems' at the Faculty of Beta Sciences, Prof. Dr. R.A. Duine.
  • Special chair 'Public organisation of (decentralised) water management' by the Schilthuis Foundation at the Faculty of Law, Economics, Governance and Organisation, Prof. Dr. H.J.M. Havekes.
  • Chair 'Sustainable Business' at the Faculty of Geosciences, Prof. Dr. N.M.P. Bocken
  • Special chair 'Organisation of Energy Markets' at the Faculty of Law, Economics, Governance and Organisation on behalf of TNO, Ms. Prof. Dr. A. Huygen.
  • Chair 'Urban Living and social networks' at the Faculty of Geosciences, Mw. Prof. Dr. B. Völker.

Outlook 2020

Sustainability is becoming increasingly important, especially in research. In 2020, for example, the alliance of UU, UMCU, Eindhoven University of Technology and WUR will be officially launched; the consortia mentioned above, such as Exposome, will set up and gradually expand their research. In March 2020, the Utrecht Young Academy launched the Climate Action Pledge during the Pathways to Sustainability conference. The CvB received this pledge and will develop it further in 2020. In June, the International SDG Research Symposium (virtual) will take place in Utrecht. Finally, the UU is considering participating in the Times Higher Education Impact Ranking in 2020.