Ghent University stimulates research with impact via new interdisciplinary research consortia

The acclaimed exhibition on Jan Van Eyck, recommendations on drug policy, relevant campaigns on sexual health, etc. are just a few of the many achievements with a broad societal impact to which Ghent University research has contributed.

Interdisciplinary research consortia (IDC) played a key role in each of these examples. Ghent University already had four and is now creating six new ones.

With the IDC, Ghent University wants to encourage interdisciplinary research, but also - and this is at least equally important - promote the societal value creation of that research.

The IDC thus work in complementarity with the IOF Business Development consortia, which are mainly focused on economic knowledge transfer (patents, spin-offs, services to companies and industry, etc.).


Each IDC brings together dozens of researchers, connected to various research groups from different faculties. For example, the brand-new consortium GRAY, which will conduct research into 'young' ageing, has 26 promotors from no fewer than six faculties. Together with their stakeholders, these researchers set to work to study the societal challenges within their theme. In doing so, they are also intended to contribute to solutions.

"It's about more than just communicating research results," says Esther De Smet, senior policy advisor in the Research Department. "The IDC involve their stakeholders throughout the research cycle: from the search for relevant themes, through asking the right research questions and practical implementation, to the effective use of the results by the stakeholders to change something. After all, it's only when research has really changed something in our society that we can speak of societal impact."

Everyone's talking about impact

The pursuit of that societal impact -in addition to scientific impact - is becoming increasingly important in the research world. In several countries (e.g. the United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, the United States), the funding system is being adapted to it and there is a trend towards citizen science; the European Commission will include it in its new Horizon Europe framework programme, and so on.

Ghent University already recognised the trend seven years ago and jumped on the impact train when it had barely left Flanders. The policy plan on societal value creation proposed a series of actions to better develop the interaction between research and society.

The alpha consortia had been established shortly before that. The aim was to stimulate interdisciplinary co-operation, while at the same time strengthening the societal role of the social sciences and humanities. In 2018, these alpha consortia transformed into the first IDC: the Henri Pirenne Institute for Medieval Studies, the Ghent Centre for Global Studies, the Crime, Criminology, and Criminal Policy consortium, and PSYNC - Working together for mental health.

Read the interview with Julie Carlier, co-ordinator of the Ghent Centre for Global Studies: "It's much more meaningful to connect people in an open-ended way than to just start communicating about what you've found at the end of your research."

Labour market, human rights, and more

It turned out to be a success story. "We saw so many inspirational things happen," says Esther De Smet. "The way PSYNC built on its collaboration with practitioners, how the CCCP consortium translated research into policy advice, their contribution to the ACCOMPLISSH project that brought together experiences of impact to create tools for co-creation, the entire Jan Van Eyck project that we now enjoy, and much more. But how the co-ordinators formed a team among themselves and were committed to Ghent University's research policy was just as inspiring."

Reasons aplenty for organising a call for new IDC at the end of 2018. In December 2019, six research consortia were selected from among the proposals, which are allowed to bear the name IDC as of this year. They receive funds from the Special Research Fund (BOF) for a full-time co-ordinator at postdoctoral level. This co-ordinator is the '˜glue' between the IDC researchers.

The co-ordinator maintains an overview of the research activities, looks for European and other research funding, and acts as a so-called knowledge broker. This means that the co-ordinator looks for impact pathways, i.e. ways to effectively make a social difference with the collected knowledge and expertise. Ghent University not only provided an open-ended contract, but also developed an adapted career model especially for these co-ordinators.

The new IDC work around a variety of themes such as the labour market (consortium of promoter/spokesperson Prof. Stijn Baert), 'young' ageing (Prof. Greet Cardon), human rights (Prof. Eva Brems), Ghent sustainability issues (Prof. Thomas Block), digital innovation for people and society (Prof. Piet Demeester), and migration and social mobility (Prof. Ilse Derluyn).

Read more about the plans of the new consortium GRAY (Ghent University Research for Ageing Young) in this conversation with promoter/spokesperson Prof. Greet Cardon and one of her direct stakeholders: "We're going to knock on a lot of doors, to get more funding for research into ageing, and to get ageing on the agenda."

Alphas in the cockpit

With the new IDC, Ghent University continues to build on its policy on societal value creation; this is followed with great interest. Esther De Smet: "When I meet foreign colleagues who also work on impact, they are always very interested in how we do things here. Our way of working, with knowledge brokers that are embedded in a decentralised way but simultaneously play a central role and can turn this into a career, proves to be relatively unique." What is also striking is that many of the IDC originate from or have a strong foundation in the alpha sciences. "Actually, that doesn't surprise me," says Esther De Smet. "These disciplines play a crucial role in our societal challenges. But, of course, we prefer alpha, beta, gamma!" With their interdisciplinary and impact-oriented approach, the IDC in any case have taken up an extra challenge for Ghent University research in addition to fundamental research and research aimed at economic knowledge transfer.

More information

Esther De Smet, senior policy advisor to the Research Department
Overview of IDC consortia aimed at societal impact