‘We want to add a technological dimension to the things we are already doing, in a way that fits in with who we are and what we do. Technology as a component of our broad research university, tailored to our strengths’, is how Peter-Paul sums it up. Peter: ‘We are not going to train engineers at the UvA, and we’re not going to be offering programmes such as civil & mechanical engineering. What we do is use technology to translate our scientific knowledge into a greater societal impact.’
Technology for science
Peter-Paul explains that we need to distinguish between two ways in which technology is important for the UvA. Under the heading ‘technology for science’ we can see how technology is becoming an increasingly decisive factor in all disciplines. Sensors enable new types of measurements, both in the natural and social sciences, and artificial intelligence helps us develop models. ‘Our strong focus on data science is one of the reasons why the UvA’s research is at the highest level across the spectrum. And we can expand this technological palette even further.
Furthermore, in order to keep educating the best people, we need to invest even more in technology. In medicine, for instance, we see huge developments in medical technology; this means you need more and more technological knowledge to be a good doctor. Not only do radiologists have to understand how an MRI scanner works; they also need to know how to use AI to interpret the images.’
Technology for society
We can put the second way in which technology is important for the UvA under the heading ‘technology for society’: adding technology to a particular discipline to increase the societal impact of research. Peter: ‘With systems knowledge of molecules and materials you can create smarter materials, for example. The number of molecules that you can come up with is almost infinite. With systems knowledge you can reduce this number to a few that actually work.’
Peter quotes another example: ‘Because we understand the role the soil system plays in the carbon cycle, we know how to manage it in a way that it positively affects the climate. That is an example of how you can translate systems knowledge into societal applications.’ Peter-Paul adds: ‘A stronger technological profile can help us make these translations. For example by developing prototypes that have a demonstrable positive effect. This requires a different approach, in which you not only look for theoretical solutions, but also think from the perspective of desired impact. The beauty is that we can do this on a foundation of top-notch science across the board, in which our central focus remains the connections between technology, people and society.’
Further developing a technological profile to fit the UvA is one of the priorities that the Executive Board has set. Peter does not have to think long about why this is: ‘Technology is important for fundamental science, for societal impact, to educating students given the big demand for technologically skilled academics, and to strengthen our position in a competitive academic world.’
Peter-Paul: ‘The UvA is very good across the full spectrum; we are at the top in almost every discipline. This is because we continually focus on methodological innovation. We are living in an age where everything is becoming more technological, including scientific research. To remain at the forefront, we need to develop new technological ways to carry out our research even more effectively. That means, for example, investing in data science and modelling, bringing in material and life sciences to conduct experiments, and integrating AI throughout the entire breadth UvA.’
Impact on the outside world
‘We want to have an impact on the outside world, based on in-depth knowledge of how systems work’, according to Peter. This impact that the UvA, together with its partners, can have on tackling complex societal issues, is also central to our Strategic Plan. Peter: ‘And it creates opportunities for valuable collaborative projects’. A recent example is that Microsoft Research Cambridge is going to establish a lab at Amsterdam Science Park and collaborate with UvA in the field of AI4Science. You don’t get these kinds of opportunities if you’re not perceived as having this kind of technological expertise.’
Thinking from the outside in
These societal issues also form the basis for our Theme-based collaboration. Peter-Paul: ‘The themes are the ‘connectors’ between the UvA and society - they connect our expertise with societal issues. Technology plays a twofold role in each of these themes: we develop new expertise using technology, and with the help of technology we can apply this expertise more effectively to address societal issues. This means we’re not only thinking ‘from the inside out’ but also ‘from the outside in’. It is not just about translating our knowledge to society, but also translating societal issues and challenges into research questions, which we can address in collaboration with non-governmental organisations, companies and citizens.’
Importance for employees and students
‘More investments in technology means that our researchers will have a wider range of research opportunities’, says Peter. ‘The data science centres of the faculties will expand, and our research infrastructure will be more technology-based’. This will provide our people with more opportunities to set up collaborative projects and to get funding. We must invest in the right ICT infrastructure for a scalable system in you can carry out research supported by computing power. So, investing in technology goes hand-in-hand with the ambitions of our digital agenda (UvA’s digitisation strategy). Here, digitisation is not just about ‘support’ but also about the way in which we conduct research. In order to realise this, we need teams of people with complementary expertise.
For students, an expanded focus on technology will translate into a broadening of the education on offer. The number of available courses will increase. For instance, we are starting a whole new course on the intersection of science, technology and innovation, and there will be a minor in Biomimicry aimed at finding solutions inspired by nature. Furthermore, there will be a stronger focus on the technology component in existing studies, which will help students prepare more effectively for their future in a society in which technology will be of increasing importance.’
‘We are currently looking into how technology can strengthen our position as a broad, excellent and societally impactful university’, says Peter-Paul. We agree to get back in touch in April with Peter-Paul and Peter for an update.
Questions or suggestions?
Do you have questions about UvA’s technological profile, or do have ideas that you would like to share? Send us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.