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Athena Institute celebrates 40th anniversary

1 September 2022
On September 1st it has been 40 years ago since the Athena Institute at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam was established. It was one of the first academic departments that addressed complex societal issues by including the knowledge and expertise of a wide variety of stakeholders in research and innovation processes. Nowadays their philosophy is increasingly the norm in academic research and education.

A pioneer’s journey
In 1982 the Athena Institute was established within the Faculty of Biology, as a small department called Biology & Society. Joske Bunders was appointed as department head. She boldly left the beaten academic tracks and pursued her reformative vision of conducting science for and with society. The idea that science should actively engage with all relevant stakeholders (knowledge democracy), and contribute to societal equitability and to the well-being of disadvantaged groups was highly innovative and therefore advocated by only a small group of supporters.

Athena’s projects focused particularly on the emerging – but contested – field of biotechnology, applied in low- and middle-income countries. At first, there was a specific focus on the agricultural sector; how could biotechnology support small-scale, resource-poor farmers. But during the 1990s this diversified to the health sector; how to involve patients in health research. In that same period, the Athena Institute tested and specified their transdisciplinary approach. With that, they developed new methodologies on the inclusion of a wide variety of stakeholders in research agenda setting, to broaden research processes and increase the utilisation of research outcomes.

Over time, the Athena Institute grew as their vision slowly gained a stronger foothold. Joske paved the way for others to adopt and implement this approach in their research and education.

Multi-stakeholder innovation in different fields
Today, the Athena Institute still adheres to the same ideology as 40 years ago: connecting science and society for a better tomorrow. In their current research programme, researchers at Athena study and design multi-stakeholder innovation processes in four domains: 1) Emerging science & technology; 2) (Global) health & well-being; 3) Nature, agriculture & environment, including Food; and 4) Competency development in inter- and transdisciplinary research. Conducting research in these 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, and that are valuable to the most marginalised as well as to society at large.

Challenges ahead
What started as a small group of pioneers grew into a department of more than 100 Athenians. Prof. Jacqueline Broerse, director of the Athena Institute since 2020: “I am extremely proud on what we have accomplished in the past 40 years, but I also hope that we can achieve much more. For example regarding the connection between health and sustainability. Many major challenges remain within this theme, such as engaging the most vulnerable groups. The persistence of institutionalised inequalities means that our work is never finished, but at the same time that is exactly what keeps it interesting.”

Read more about the Athena Institute and their history.