First published in AMS magazine. Authors: Sarah Gehrke and Rhys Elliott
Amsterdam has been a haven for scientific and academic advances ever since the Dutch Golden Age. Then an international powerhouse of economic and social development, the country’s tolerant climate meant Amsterdam and the Netherlands became home to many immigrants who had been persecuted on religious grounds in their native countries. The new Amsterdammers contributed not only to the city’s economic lead, but also to its cultural and scientific eminence. One of the luminaries still contributing to this climate of cultural and scientific ambition is Jan Leeghwater, the 17th century architect and hydraulic engineer whose polder techniques have enabled the Dutch to live on dry land, metres below sea level, ever since. Another, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, is known as the father of microbiology. And of course, there’s Baruch Spinoza, the philosopher whose ideas laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment.
A lot of offer
Such diversity in ideas and, crucially, disciplines is still to be found in the Amsterdam of today. A distinctive feature of the city’s academic landscape is the way it brings together what the Dutch call ‘alpha-’, ‘beta-’ and ‘gamma-’ sciences: Humanities and the arts rub shoulders with natural sciences, data, IT and the so-called STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics); those, in turn, are complemented by behavioural and social studies, as well as economics and law. All this happens on a geographically small scale due to the city’s compact size and the region’s excellent connectivity.
The Netherlands may be a relatively small country, but its scientific output ranks in the global Top 20 – in absolute terms – and the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area is the nation’s leading region for academic research and education. It is home to the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU), as well as two academic medical centres, a university of applied sciences, four (soon to be five) research institutes belonging to the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), several research institutes of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), two biomedical research institutes, the Netherlands Aerospace Centre (NLR), a technology centre and an e-science centre. As a result, the possibilities for mutual inspiration and collaboration are unparalleled. The old distinctions blur; disciplines mingle. And this is extremely good news for businesses, as looking beyond one’s desk, faculty or institute is often what fuels the development of new technologies, products and services.
The new chances resulting from collaborations of academia, science and technology with businesses are manifold. Mathematics provides insights into dynamic pricing technologies. Data sciences help to improve e-sales and image recognition. It’s data sciences, of course, that has been causing the biggest stir on a global scale of late. Applied to existing industries, the discipline has shaken up conventional processes and disrupted markets left, right and centre. The fact that Amsterdam has a well-developed data science community and is home to the world’s largest data transport hub, the Amsterdam Internet Exchange, indicates a healthy base for further innovations.
Strength in partnerships
Amsterdam Science Park plays a key role in this growth, with the UvA, VU, the Centrum voor Wiskunde & Informatica (Centre for Mathematics and Computer Science, CWI) and the Netherlands eScience Center (NLeSC) joining forces here to collaborate in the fields of data analytics, visualisation and image recognition, machine learning, deep learning and artificial intelligence. This joint research has already led to several spin-off projects and numerous public-private partnerships. Through all of this, the City of Amsterdam is not far behind, enthusiastically throwing its weight behind facilitating further collaborations between the worlds of research and business. It has recently appointed a senior manager for knowledge and innovation, Martijn de Boer, who will function as a point of contact for businesses and help them connect directly to the city’s ever-evolving science and technology network.
Not that there isn’t plenty going on already. Take the Advanced Research Center for Nanolithography (ARCNL), a public-private initiative partly funded by the City of Amsterdam: its cooperation between ASML and academic researchers is a Dutch first in terms of scale, intensity and long-term outlook in fundamental research dedicated to global semiconductor industry. Elsewhere, several multinational corporates either have their own research facilities in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area (such as Shell) or engage in joint research projects with research institutes – examples for the latter are ASML, AkzoNobel, Tata Steel, Bosch, Nikon, Qualcomm and IBM.
Amsterdam’s science and academic community has a lot to offer to the business world, with numerous research topics particularly ripe for collaboration and development. These include nanotechnology at the ARCNL and photovoltaic devices (contributing hugely to the further development of solar technology). Then there’s advanced instrumentation, with the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics (Nikhef) developing instruments for experiments at CERN and others, plus the AMOLF institute and the two universities also combining their strengths in the field.
Sustainable chemistry is another field where Amsterdam excels. The UvA and VU have partly merged their chemistry departments and have made sustainability a key characteristic of their research. They have an excellent reputation in developing new catalytic solutions, resulting in several spin-offs and public-private partnerships – just one eye-catching example is how they’re developing microbiological techniques to convert sunlight into organic molecules.
One of the fields where Amsterdam’s spirit of collaboration and cross-pollination comes to the fore the most is life sciences and health. Both universities, the UvA and VU, have a strong biomedical focus and have affiliated medical centres (AMC and VUmc). Other major institutes include the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), Sanquin (the blood supply foundation) and the Academic Centre for Dentistry Amsterdam (ACTA), a globally-leading dental education and research facility. In total, the sector has more than 3,000 scientific staff active in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. Research activities are often commercialised and occur across a broad spectrum, which includes oncology, neurosciences, immunology, infectious diseases and cardiovascular diseases; there are also joint initiatives for medical imaging techniques.
Looking to the future
Of course, it’s not all about the big, long-term solutions. In Amsterdam, temporary or unexpected collaborations result in frequent, newsworthy successes. For example, the Van ’t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences, one of the eight UvA research institutes at Amsterdam Science Park, focuses on creating more efficient and sustainable materials and processes, works with BMW and Volkswagen to develop better batteries for electric vehicles. But it has also partnered with Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum to explore how paintings and sculptures deteriorate and, consequently, how better to clean and protect the them.
This small example perfectly encapsulates how major, world-changing research can in return have a great impact on the city in which it was conceived – be it in business, culture or the day-to-day life of citizens. And that matters too. In addition to the many ongoing Amsterdam Smart City projects, which bring government and academic parties together with businesses and citizens to tackle urban issues, the young Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute) is a public-private institute focusing on applying technology to urban themes, such as mobility, water, energy, data, waste and food. In the institute – as in Amsterdam in general – science, education, government, business partners and social organisations are collaborating closely to tackle the complex challenges metropolitan regions face today and tomorrow, and to fi nd modern, future-proof solutions that will then be integrated into the city.
After all, working together for the greater good is very much in the spirit of Amsterdam.