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Research programme

The key question of Athena’s research programme is: How to organise inclusive multi-stakeholder innovation processes which contribute to addressing complex societal challenges in a sustainable and equitable way?

Research foci
To address this key question, our research focusses on understanding, facilitating, sustaining and upscaling these process, through reflexive monitoring and evaluation.

Through reflection and learning we also combine the analysis of challenges and innovations with methodologies for knowledge integration and transformation. This brings us to our additional research focus: Training and empowering stakeholders, professionals and students to facilitate and participate in inclusive multi-stakeholder innovation processes.

Levels of analyses
Realising effective innovations through inclusive multi-stakeholder innovation processes typically entails interventions at multiple levels, as an activity at one level strongly influences activities at other levels as well. Therefore, our research foci are studied at all levels and in interaction:

  • Micro: actors and projects
  • Meso: organisations and networks
  • Macro: socio-technical systems

Research domains
Our analyses start from different, but converging starting points. We may start from new developments in science and technology, such as those in biotechnology, neuroscience, nanotechnology and information and communication technology. To adequately anticipate potential societal impacts and address societal needs and concerns, innovation processes need to include a wide variety of factors and actors. Secondly, our research also often starts from the complex challenges of vulnerable groups in society in specific domains: (global) health and well-being and nature, agriculture and environment. Thirdly, we respond to the increasing need to develop capacities of students and professionals in science-society interactions and transdisciplinary research. Lastly, we take an historical point of view, in order to provide a long-term perspective on contemporary and future processes of knowledge production and innovation. Together, this transpires into our five research domains.

Conducting our research in different domains provides complementarity and synergy, leading to more robust knowledge. In other words, findings in one domain are tested and verified in other domains, thereby contributing to insights that are both contextualised and generalisable.

Learn more about our domains

  • Emerging science and technology

    Emergent science and technologies, such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology, cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence, are contrasted with incremental innovation processes. They are seen as more unpredictable, disruptive, and complex. Typically, emerging technologies not only constitute technical, but also social and moral change. How to deal with these forms of change in order to contribute to a responsible embedding of the resulting innovations? By integrating societal actors in academic research before, during and after the research process, the chances of productive relationships between technological developments and societal issues, increase.

  • (Global) health and well-being

    Human health is the ability of individuals or communities to adapt and self-manage when facing physical, mental or social challenges. Athena focuses on a diversity of themes ranging from universal health coverage to patient-centered health care. Our research aims to describe, understand, evaluate, and help transform the responsibilities, strategies, actions and collaborations with relevant stakeholder groups, such as patients, professionals, pharmaceutical industry and policy makers, to increase equal access to health and social care, both in high-income countries and in low- and middle-income countries. Areas of application include mental health, maternal health and digital inclusion.


  • Nature, agriculture and environment

    Major challenges of the 21st century concern the sustainable production, use and management of resources. Athena focuses on themes ranging from food and nutrition security to circular and bio-economy. Our research in the field of ‘food and nutrition security’ examines strategies that could increase access to affordable, nutritious food for vulnerable, resource-poor populations worldwide, using approaches such as nutrition-sensitive agriculture, urban agriculture and agri-business development. Within the topic of ‘circularity and bio-economy’, we investigate facilitators and barriers to innovations for sustainability. Moreover, we engage a wide variety of stakeholders in discussions on the co-creation of sustainable futures and appropriate transition pathways.

    Example projectsFIT4FOOD2030, FUSILLI, Inter-Administrative Programme Vibrant Rural Areas, Natuurpact

  • Competency development

    Research in this domain is concerned with developing and evaluating appropriate methodologies to train students and professionals in transdisciplinary approaches to address complex problems. Students and professionals who aspire to become transdisciplinary researchers, therefore require abilities to conduct an in-depth multi-perspective problem articulation, to integrate relevant theoretical perspectives and facilitate multi-stakeholder processes.

    Example projectInSPIRES

    Visit our Stakeholder Engagement in Education and Research Toolbox for support in facilitating community service learning and other participatory processes between science and society. 

  • History of knowledge

    In order to provide a long-term perspective on contemporary and future processes of innovation, the dynamics of such processes are also analysed from a historical point of view. Central subjects concern the making and unmaking of demarcations and hierarchical designations of different forms of knowledge, e.g. experiential knowledge, “lay” expertise and formalised academic knowledge. These processes are studied as part of wider social entanglements, related to the perceived social uses of novel forms of knowledge, forms of public engagement, the role of expectations and anxieties among various publics, and the role of education in facilitating such embeddings.

    Researchers in the field of history of knowledge participate in the VU Stevin Centre for the History of Science and Humanities which in turn is one of the divisions of the CLUE+,  the Interfaculty Research Institute for Culture, Cognition, History and Heritage . Current projects focus on twentieth-century scientific internationalism, mathematics education in the post-war period, discipline formation, and the history of modern universities.