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Background

The Athena Institute has its roots in VU’s Department of Biology & Society, which was established within the Faculty of Biology in 1980, following the new academic trend of linking science to society.

Initially, its only purpose was to enrich the natural science education programme. However, soon came the realisation that it was crucial for the viability and quality of education to establish a research programme as well. The projects focused particularly on the emerging – but contested –  field of biotechnology, applied to developing countries. At first, there was a specific focus on the agricultural sector, but during the 1990s this diversified to the health sector. In that same period, the transdisciplinary approach was tested and specified, developing new methodologies on the inclusion of a wide variety of stakeholders in research agenda setting and with that, broadening the utilisation of research outcomes. The department’s theoretical background was, and still is, strongly rooted in Science, Technology and Society Studies (STS).

Athena got its name in 2002, when enrichment was brought by insights from the fields of Science Communication and Education. All who were working at the interface between science and society were unified in one institute: Athena, which reminds us of the need to combine wisdom with heroic endeavours, of which Athena is the patron. From that point, the research programme further developed, particularly in the direction of health, whilst the workforce grew significantly due to expansion of the education programme, a.o. by the establishment of the Master’s specialisation Science in Society, soon followed by the independent Master’s programme Management, Policy Analysis and entrepreneurship (MPA) and the increasing number of externally funded projects.

The growth and success continued, as Athena’s vision slowly gained a stronger foothold. In 2017, the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, to which Athena belonged, merged with the Faculty of Natural Sciences, resulting in the current Faculty of Science. In 2021, the Institute for History and Social Aspects of Science joined Athena. This institute originated in the first Dutch chair for the history of science, established at the VU in 1945 in order to broaden the intellectual outlook of science students. Eventually, history of science was supplemented with philosophy of science and social aspects of science, resulting in a group named “General education”. The group’s research in the history of science focused on the interface between science and society in the 19th and 20th century. The merger with the Athena institute offers opportunities for long-term perspective on research into contemporary and future processes of innovation.

After all these developments, Athena still adheres to the same ideology as almost 40 years ago: connecting science and society for a better tomorrow.

A pioneer’s journey
Joske Bunders has been the driving force behind this evolutionary process. Already in the early 80s, she boldly left the beaten academic tracks by pursuing her reformative vision of conducting science for and with society. The idea that science has to contribute to societal equitability and to the health and well-being of vulnerable groups, such as communities in developing countries, was highly innovative and therefore advocated by only a small group of supporters.

Joske persevered, not letting herself get affected by existing paradigms, political power play or ingrained academic conservativeness. What drove her was the desire to give a voice to those who were often unheard in science and technology development, and to contribute to societal progress. Over time, Joske’s unique way of thinking inspired many and she paved the way for others to adopt and implement her vision and approach in their research and education, eventually resulting in full embedding in the present scientific culture.

As Athena’s vision was far from conventional for a long time and academic career paths were uncertain, only visionaries who felt intrinsically motivated dared to join. What started as a small group of pioneers grew into a large group of almost 100 Athenians at present day, who are continuing Athena’s unique and adventurous journey.