Our story

The Copernicus Institute is a vibrant international research community that aims to help accelerate the transition to a sustainable society. We do this by developing excellent and relevant knowledge, collaborating with citizens, politicians, policymakers, NGOs and firms to learn from each other and influence decision-making, and by educating the change agents of the future. 

Formally, we are organized as one of four departments of Utrecht University’s Faculty of Geosciences. We occupy a unique position as an interdisciplinary natural/social sciences department. While we are the only department at Utrecht University that solely focuses on sustainability research, it is a key topic for Utrecht University in general. Notably, the Strategic Theme Pathways to Sustainability strengthens our collaboration with many other groups across the university. We also actively contribute to Institutions for Open Societies, bringing in our research on the role of institutions and institutional change in understanding transformations to sustainable development.


We were formed in 2003 as the Department of Innovation, Environmental and Energy Sciences (IMEW), bringing together the Environmental Governance, Environmental Sciences and Innovation Studies sections. In 2012, the Science, Technology and Society section joined us from the Faculty of Science, forming what is now known as the Energy & Resources section. In 2021 the Urban Futures Studio became our fifth research section.

Scientific Excellence

The most recent research quality assessment forming part of the Netherlands’ environmental-science and sustainability research evaluation ranked Utrecht University’s Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development as the best in the Netherlands. The foreign experts unanimously praised the exceptional quality of the institute, with this top rating endorsing Utrecht University’s leading role in research into a sustainable society.

For the period 2011 and 2015 Utrecht University’s research in the category ‘Environmental Sciences’ had the greatest impact worldwide according to Times Higher Education. Utrecht’s scientific publications scored higher for citation impact than universities such as Stanford and Harvard.

In 2018 Utrecht University researchers ranked second worldwide in the Academic Ranking of World Universities (Shanghai Ranking) category Geography. Only the University of Oxford achieved a better ranking in this field.