Convergence Year Report 2023
TU Delft, Erasmus MC and Erasmus University Rotterdam
Today’s complex societal challenges – such as climate change and urbanisation, the impact of digitilisation and the increasing role of technology, and the sustainability of our healthcare system – demand groundbreaking scientific insights and a holistic approach. For this reason, TU Delft, Erasmus University Rotterdam and Erasmus MC started an intensive collaboration across disciplines and institutions in 2019. Through their alliance, better known as Convergence, they aim to ‘fuse’ and reinforce knowledge and expertise from the socio-economic, medical and technological sciences. This creates the research and education infrastructures and even new disciplines that are necessary to understand and solve complex societal challenges.
After a successful exploratory phase that was testimony to the power and importance of transdisciplinary collaboration it is time for the next phase. In 2023, important steps were made towards intensified collaboration and ‘fusion’. Dialogues with the five programmes and representatives from different layers of the institutions explored how this collaboration should further develop. Challenges and opportunities were identified, and the vision on transformational research & education, data sharing, public affairs & funding and operational prerequisites were examined.
At the Convergence Working Conference on October 27, 2023, administrators, deans, directors, department heads, representatives of the operational support services and university councils of the institutions met with management and academic leads of the programmes for a strategic dialogue about the future of Convergence. These conversations created a clearer picture of the contours that will have to be further detailed in 2024, and will serve as the basis for a proposal by the Convergence Executive Board on further integration of Convergence within the existing structures of the institutions. This includes improved operational support, further institutionalisation and an appropriate governance model to align Convergence with the activities of the institutions.
Other 2023 Convergence milestones
In addition, research activities have progressed steadily in 2023. One example is the DigiPACT project of Resilient Delta (RD). This has produced improved computational models, open source code and software that will enable autonomous ships to navigate the port in a more environmentally friendly manner. Health & Technology (H&T) launched ten Flagship programmes. H&T also issued a call for projects to make healthcare more sustainable, which has resulted in three Sustainable Health Programmes to be launched in 2024. At the H&T consortium Theranostics experiments were conducted which led to the filing of two patents. The Pandemic Disaster & Preparedness Center (PDPC) launched five Frontrunner projects. Their aim is to develop the expertise needed from various disciplines to better prepared for pandemics, disasters and additional societal problems. Thirteen project proposals that can contribute to the ambitions of Healthy Start (HS) in the short term have been awarded the Healthy Start|ers Fund. These include Sprint projects for podcasts, impact toolkits, theater productions, co-creation labs and VR. The new round will start in January.
In 2023, the development of educational activities was also given much attention. RD organised a webinar on inter- and transdisciplinary methodology. AI, Data & Digitalization (AIDD) organised a webinar on AI education for Dummies, masterclasses on translating ethical AI into policy, the impact of AI on culture and decolonising AI, as well as a symposium on AI Convergence education. HS held a webinar with other partners on how performance pressure affects young people. PDPC conducted a course in virology, several workshops, webinars and masterclasses in the Netherlands and abroad. Members of H&T’s Convergence Human Mobility Center Flagship organised a Spring School on home rehabilitation after a stroke with other partners. H&T is also working on a new research master in Sustainable Health, for which they will rope in the help of researchers, students and education professionals.
In 2023, Resilient Delta (RD) focused on removing hurdles for researchers and different generations to come together and combine their strengths. One milestone was the introduction of three Gluon Researchers, who lead a diverse team and minimize the distance between disciplines by acting as the essential glue to unlock elusive breakthroughs in collective knowledge.
At the Generation Delta Conference, seasoned experts and the next generations of change makers gathered to merge their experiences and perspectives. By combining their unique strengths, different generations help shape a collective legacy of resilience to tackle today’s wicked problems.
Opening centers en labs
New centers and labs were also opened in 2023. AIDD opened the AI Port Center, the Energy Systems Intelligence Center, the Convergence Center for FinTech and the Center for Responsible AI in Healthcare. These centers bring together research and innovative partnership for the use of AI technology. H&T Flagships have been involved in setting up new labs, such as the Biomechanical Lab opening soon at Erasmus MC, a shared facility use case Innovation Lab, an Organ-on-Chip facility scheduled to open at the end of Q1, 2024 and the first ethics lab for artificial intelligence in health care in the world.
The PDPC Academy published a white paper on integrated pandemic counseling. It also produced reports on the need for tailored interventions for disadvantaged groups and on the lessons learned from the corona crisis. RD released a podcast series with other partners, featuring stories from the Delta. RD also released reports on the impact of inequality on resilience in the Delta region and on container congestion in the Port of Rotterdam. Two research reports on the future of hydrogen, created with RD’s support, were presented at the World Hydrogen Summit. HS collaborated on a report on youth participation in local policy. Researchers of H&T have published in more than twenty peer-reviewed journals, such as The Lancet and Nature.
Convergence also garnered media attention. The NOS reported on the graduation research of Olympic champion Yara van Kerkhof of HS on exercise for young heart patients. Marion Koopmans of PDPC was interviewd at Op1 about the risks of bird flu and the need for better pandemic preparedness and collaborated on podcast Het Uur (The Hour) of NRC. Pearl Dykstra of PDPC talked in Nieuwsuur about a new report of the Netherlands Institute for Social Research.
Health & Technology
2023 marked the official launch of the ten Health & Technology Flagships, for which 55 PhD’s and Postdocs were hired. The Flagships were presented at the Health & Technology Community Engagement Event, where early-career and experienced researchers gathered to connect and learn from each other. President of the Board of TU Delft Tim van der Hagen commented that it was wonderful to see how much progress had been made in the past four years.
In 2023, Health & Technology (H&T) also introduced its Sustainable Health programmes. In April, the call was published, and in October, three transdisciplinary teams of researchers were selected to start working on zero-emission endoscopy, a smart operation room and technological innovations for nurses respectively. The programs will receive 200.000 euros annually from Erasmus MC for the coming four years.
In 2023 Convergence initiatives and researchers also received recognition. For example, Eveline Crone, Academic Lead of HS was awarded the Distinguished NIAS-Lorentz Fellowship 2023/24 for her research on curiosity. Ron Fouchier of PDPC received the Beijerinck Virology Prize and Katie Poggensee of H&T was awarded a Marie Curie European Postdoctoral Fellowship for research on robotic rehabilitation in spinal cord injury. Health Minister Kuipers received the winning team from the Battle of the Minds Hackathon that he had challenged in 2022 to solve healthcare problems. The rehabilitation prediction model, co-developed by members of the Convergence Human Mobility Center Flagship van H&T, was nominated for a Computable Award in the category of Best ICT solution in healthcare.
Thanks to a €25 million NWO grant to ROBUST, AIDD set up three new labs and an AI clinic for SMEs. A renewable energy research consortium involving RD received a €1 million grant from the ICLEI Action Fund 2.0. Several projects in which PDPC is involved also received grants, such as the DURABLE project that received 25 million euros from the EU4Health program. ZonMW granted 2.5 million euros and 1.6 million euros each for pandemic preparedness research. NWO provided three grants, including 15.2 million euros to link and analyze large amounts of data in a secure and ethical way, as well as a grant for flood protection research. Consortia in which H&T programmes participate have received grants, such as an EU Horizon grant of nearly nine million euros for co-designing AI-powered technologies Intensive Care, and NWA-ORC grants of five million euros for research on gender differences in autism and of six million euros for research on circular hospitals, respectively.
AI, Data & Digitalisation
This year, AI, Data & Digitalisation (AIDD) launched three new research centers. The Energy Systems Intelligence Center, the AI Port Center and the Convergence Center for FinTech are using artificial intelligence and interdisciplinary collaboration to address complex societal issues, for instance by developing solutions for secure data exchange in research and institutions.
Three new ICAI (Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence)-labs of AIDD have been recognized by ROBUST. The number of labs now totals ten in Delft and three in Rotterdam. ROBUST thus provides an impetus for a stronger ICAI ecosystem to develop trustworthy AI-based systems for sustainable growth.
To strengthen the Convergence community and connect with stakeholders from science, healthcare, government, business and society, new partnerships were formed and events were organised this year as well. For example, RD set up the research consortium SPRING with local partners to address disparities in health and well-being in Rotterdam. RD also joined Smart Delta Drechtsteden and the Waterweg region to improve the livability and living and working environment in their municipalities. To engage citizens in creative and innovative ways to green and climate-proof cities, RD launched a mobile forest project. The HS Ambition Day, the H&T community event and H&T onboarding and talent pool event for new PhD students and Postdocs, PDPC’s Moonshots of Pandemic & Disaster Preparedness Research Congress and RD’s Generation Delta Conference brought together internal and external stakeholders to solidify shared ambitions.
2023 also saw increased collaboration between the five Convergence programmes. For example, RD and AIDD co-hosted the Convergence Port Event and a roundtable on accelerating climate resilience with AI. H&T and RD organised the Healthy City Conference for a discussion on what the healthy city of the future should look like.
Pandemic & Disaster Preparedness Center
At the Pandemic & Disaster Preparedness Center (PDPC), 2023 was also a productive year. Five Frontrunner projects are now up and running. The PDPC Academy published a whitepaper on integral pandemic advice and two reports. One report focused on underserved groups and another report gathered the lessons learned during the corona crisis. Webinars on these reports were well attended.
PDPC’s international congress Moonshots of Pandemic & Disaster preparedness research gathered scientists from various disciplines to discuss how research can best contribute to pandemic and disaster preparedness, and which ‘lessons learned’ can be turned into ideas for new, innovative prevention and intervention measures. Speakers from top-notch Dutch and international institutions delivered presentations and 29 junior scientists presented their research ideas.
Engaging students and nurses
Various workshops for nurses, students and young researchers, a hackathon, minors, the PDPC PhD and Postdoc day and the Healthy Start Young Board, brought nurses, (PhD) students and Postdocs on board. Representatives of the university councils, including students, were also invited for a strategic dialogue on the future of Convergence during the Convergence Working Conference. Initiatives that strengthen Convergence as an inclusive movement that can build on the experiences and expertise of many stakeholders within the institutions.
Due to the growing number of projects, the Convergence community has also grown. The influx of PhD students, Postdocs and nurses, as well as professionals, LDE trainees and student assistants in support roles, has given the movement a fresh impetus. At HS, the six Ambition projects are led by young, talented Ambition Leads and Co-Leads. They are supported by Convergence Fellows, PhDs and nurses. And Resilient Delta installed three young GLUON researchers who provide the essential “glue” for scientific collaboration across disciplines. To better serve the growing community, programme support has also continued to expand. For example, a Privacy Working Group has been launched and the Convergence Office has been strengthened with a policy advisor and a student assistant.
This year, the six Ambition projects of Healthy Start (HS) really gained traction. HS organised the first HS Ambition Day to empower and grow the HS community, which addresses various exposures from geographical, social, lifestyle and stress-related factors that determine early life development. To further boost the Ambition projects, HS launched the Healthy Start-ers Fund at the event.
The Strategy Afternoon held in June marked the next phase for HS. The six Ambition projects which took off this year are led by young and talented Ambition Leads, joined by Convergence Fellows, PhDs and nurses. And the first Sprint projects funded by the Healthy Start-ers Fund are winding down, while the 2024 cohort will start in January.