Collaboration, no competition: young researchers work together in financing their projects

Six collaborative teams from various disciplines within the strategic alliance of TU/e, WUR, UU and UMC Utrecht have received an Unusual Collaborations Grant of up to 180,000 euros. The Centre for Unusual Collaborations (CUCo) honours projects that are ‘unusual’ in their collaboration, methods and results. The projects are also evaluated in an unusual way. Under the motto ‘collaboration, not competition’, the various teams evaluated each other’s plans to achieve a shared result.

The goal of the Centre for Unusual Collaborations is to encourage unusual collaborations between the four alliance institutions, and with external partners, to contribute to a better understanding of global problems. Corinne Lamain, Director of the Centre for Unusual Collaborations: “Interactions between the various disciplines, which usually don’t work together, can help us step outside our disciplinary comfort zones and look at social issues from fresh, new perspectives. ”With this funding, the four institutions aim to encourage research that isn’t afraid to go off the beaten path.

Unusual method

Corinne Lamain: “At the CUCo, we believe it’s important for young researchers to get away from the academic rat race and help each other get ahead. So we not only encourage collaboration within the projects, but also between the projects.” The Centre has an unusual method for selecting proposals by having applicants evaluate one another’s proposals, instead of using external reviewers and committees. The evaluation is based on constructive feedback. Corinne: “That way, we can help each other get ahead and make the best use of everyone’s qualities and expertise. If it’s up to the CUCo, this is how we’ll build the future of science.”

Unusual Collaborations Grant

The Unusual Collaborations grants are awarded to interdisciplinary teams affiliated with the four institutions in the strategic alliance. The funds are intended to reinforce the ties and collaborations between the institutions. At least one member of the team must also be a member of the Young Academy and one of the four institutions.

Awarded projects

Defeating Chronic Pain

This unusual collaboration aims to better understand what chronic pain actually is to those experiencing it, before redefining pain phenotypes. The project’s approach will be first to explore how to come to a multidisciplinary, multifaceted (re)definition of chronic pain in both animals and humans by combining the available expertise and knowledge within ten research disciplines. It will supplement this with input and feedback from chronic pain patients. Second, the project will uncover what new pain phenotypes can be defined to better understand a patients’ pain experience.

‘In the upcoming year we aim to develop techniques to measure chronic pain via imaging and biosensors, expand our collaboration by constructing a consortium to become a reference centre, connecting what is already there and to collaboratively take the next step to defeat chronic pain.’

Researchers:  Yoeri van de Burgt (TU/e), Sylvia Brugman (WUR), Laura Winkens (WUR), Tessa van Charldorp (UU), Madelijn Strick (UU), Janny de Grauw (UU), Frank Meye (UMC Utrecht), Hanneke Willemen (UMC Utrecht), Mienke Rijsdijk (UMC Utrecht)

The FAIR-Battery challenge

The most common renewable energy sources, solar and wind electricity, are intermittent. The storage of energy in batteries, is therefore an essential link in localizing and democratizing access to electricity. To reach the deployment level necessary for the Paris agreement, energy storage facilities in all scales, from domestic to industrial, are needed. The main goal of this project is to develop an open-source electrochemical battery technology that can be deployed and maintained in the field, for residential users, small scale commercial use, and rural health posts. The unusual aspect of this project is that it aims at practical affordability, reliability, and accessibility of the batteries developed in this project, by consulting local stakeholders.

‘We envision a world in which access to renewable energy is democratic, governed locally, and is built upon mutual exchange of knowledge and technology without exploitative transfer of natural resources. We plan to enhance the diffusion of knowledge on energy storage by structuring a design lab that prioritizes local needs and access to developing battery systems and uses open science to educate and enable a network of experts and end-users in choosing the best route for their locally sourced energy grids.’

Researchers: Antoni Forner-Cuenca (TUe), Yali Tang (TUe), Maarten Voors (WUR), Stephanie Hobbis (WUR), Thomas Bauwens (UU). Sanli Faez (UU), Peter Ngene (UU)

All in the same boat: Unusual solutions for cleaner water

The health of nature and society depends on sufficient water quantity and quality. Clean water integrates these aspects and is challenged in many  ways. Climate change (including drought and flooding) complicates the  availability of clean water. Contamination (e.g., pathogens, nutrients, and  plastics) and inequality in price and access among sectors (e.g., industry,  drinking water, and agriculture) reduce clean water and impact the health of  nature and society. The water-nature-society interactions  are thus complex. Therefore, identifying solutions for water-related  challenges requires inter- and transdisciplinary approaches that unite efforts  and innovations from governments, companies, academics, and the general  public.

‘Our activities, including a survey on water research, revealed a clear need for  interdisciplinary integration to secure water from raindrop to tap. Such approaches are badly needed to help realize Sustainable  Development Goals and European Green Deal policies.’

Researchers: Yali Tang (Tue), Maryna Strokal (WUR), Maarten Smulders (WUR), Annette Janssen (WUR), Kevin Matson (WUR), Harmen Knap (WUR), Herman Gilissen (UU), Erhard van der Vries (UMC Utrecht)

The Power of One

The project aims to find ways to collect data of people currently not included in abstract categories, datasets, or algorithms and will thus improve understanding of the mismatch between the studied sample and the underlying population, and formulate suggestions to make data collection efforts more inclusive. The project will do so by collaborating with professionals in the field to identify people who are not represented by the data used by researchers and governments to make decisions. The project sees the unseen and hears the unheard.

‘In our team, consisting of a social psychologist, industrial designer, cultural historian, cell biologist, methodologist, data privacy expert, and language researcher, we examine the barriers that prevent individuals from being empowered to make their needs and views known to professionals (including researchers, policymakers, and aid workers). We examine barriers related to collecting data from marginalized groups in the workplace, the difficulty of reaching out to a representative set of patients to be included in medical research, and the challenge of reaching out to neighbourhood residents for who new technological solutions (e.g., a virtual library) will be developed.’

Researchers: Daniel Lakens (TU/e), Mathias Funk (TU/e), Jojanneke van der Toorn (UU), Merel van Goch (UU), Martine Veldhuizen (UU), Cristiana Santos (UU), Marianne Boes (UMC Utrecht)

Structures of Strength

Within this project a platform will be created where a team of researchers from diverse fields such as biology, medicine, culture, history, engineering and mathematics come together around the problem of porous materials. Around this common ground – porous materials are everywhere – they will work together and learn from each other in order to combine their knowledge and create solutions related to health, food, energy, cultural and environmental issues. Knowledge and insights related to bio-medicine and cultural heritage are combined to find innovative solutions. These – at first sight unrelated – disciplines have hidden similarities related to porous materials.

‘To demonstrate this synergy and its unusualness, we have combined knowledge and insights related to two very different topics of bio-medicine and cultural heritage and explored innovative solutions for both fields. We have shown that these – at first sight unrelated – disciplines have hidden similarities related to porous materials which can be used to enable cross-talk between disciplines and to create a common language.’

Researchers: Maarten Smulders (WUR), Pariya Behrouzi (WUR), Amir Raoof (UU), Silvia Mihaila (UU), Matteo Gazzani (UU), Marjolijn Bol (UU), Daphne Stapels (UU),  Karin Strijbis (UU), Yvonne Vercoulen (UMC Utrecht)

Playing with the Trouble

A critical challenge for interdisciplinary collaborations is to navigate multiple worldviews and perspectives, both within academic research contexts, and in engagement with societal stakeholders. Playing games can open up spaces where participants can express and share how they experience the world. In an institutional context, games can help to explore different roles, perspectives, and rules, and expand collective imagination and agency.

‘Our interdisciplinary team of nine researchers will co-create a toolbox of modular mini-games that can support diverse teams in various stages of their collaborations. This full proposal builds on a two-day workshop in which we ‘play tested’ initial prototype game mechanics. Building on insights from our workshop, we will co-develop modular mini-games and pilot these within inter- and transdisciplinary case studies in both research and education. The case studies will be connected to the team’s diverse research projects covering a diversity of domains (e.g. climate, socioeconomic transitions, health), with stakeholders inside and outside academia. We will facilitate learning across case studies through meetings, training sessions and joint activities. The resulting mini-games will be shared in an online library, hosted by CUCo, accompanied by example applications and other guiding materials in order to help users benefit from the toolbox.’

Researchers: Dan Lockton (TUe), Jet Vervoort (WUR),  Raimon Ripoll-Bosch (WUR), Jessica Duncan (WUR), Josephine Chambers (WUR), Joost Mattheus Vervoort  (UU), Suzan Ruijtenberg (UU), Maikel Waardenburg (UU), Joyce Browne (UMC Utrecht)