Impact program

Science with a Soul

By Dick den Hertog, Impact Program Leader Creating Value from Data

Several years ago, I read the book Excellence without a Soul, written by Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College. This book made a deep impression on me. Harvard may be the oldest, most powerful university in the world, but in this book Lewis showed that its mission drifted from education to customer satisfaction; that it is no longer a city upon a hill but merely a brand name. He claims that Harvard has become soulless; they do not encourage their students to seek meaning in their studies and purpose in their lives anymore.

According to Lewis:

Universities have lost the sense that their educational mission is to transform teenagers, whose lives have been structured by their families and their high schools, into adults with the learning and wisdom to take responsibility for their own lives and for civil society.
The greater the university, the more intent it is on competitive success in the marketplace of faculty, students, and research money. And the less likely it is to talk seriously to students about their development into people of good character who will know that they owe something to society for the privileged education they have received.

In this book, Lewis claims that this “excellence without a soul” does not only hold for Harvard but for many other universities. And to be honest, I also recognized that many of the observations in this book also hold for our university.

Educational vision

I am, therefore, very enthusiastic about the new educational vision of Tilburg University: knowledge – skills – character; actually this sounds better in Dutch: KENNIS – KUNDE – KARAKTER. And then especially the last word: KARAKTER.

During a discussion of this new educational vision in my School, there were also several negative reactions from colleagues: “I am not a priest…. I am not able to help the students in character building.” I really hope that Tilburg University will develop and implement this new educational vision; and I really hope that the change is more than only adding one or two more courses on ethics or philosophy. I think ALL teachers should contribute to this KARAKTER aspect of our new educational vision. Let us, the teachers, come together to inspire each other how to include character building in our teaching.

Let me inspire you by just one small example. Two years ago we included a very short 1-EC course in our Econometrics program: Improving Society Lab. In this course, real-life cases are presented (and students also carried out some exercises related to these cases). This way the students see how the theory they have just learned can be applied to really improve society. At the final poster session I talked to many students, and it was fantastic to see that this course had opened many students' eyes as to how inspiring it is to use science for something meaningful for society; many of them realized that, with regards to a future job, maximizing the salary is not the most important goal! Fortunately, these students are not soulless…

Research impact

And what about our research?  The research of most of the research groups at Tilburg University is of high quality. Tilburg University is high on many ranking lists. Research Excellence but with or without a soul?

Honestly, and I know that there is a lot of discussion about this topic, but for me “Understanding Society” does not inspire me. In my view it is somewhat “soulless”. But, on the other hand, I am positively surprised by discovering that, in the last year, many colleagues across all the Schools wanted to go further: to advance / improve society a little bit. I learned that many researchers are already connected or want to be connected to society. I looked at all the research evaluation reports of our research groups, and, to my surprise, the score for relevance is really high.

And that is my first claim with regards to research: talking about impact / relevance (I avoid the V word of Valorization), it is much better than we think (at least much better than I thought before), much better than e.g. stated on the “Valorization website of the VSNU”, and much better than stated in our Tilburg University annual report. So, my conclusion is that our university does not have a clear overview of what is going on at this university regarding impact. We can do a much better job in describing the impact of our research.

I also think that we can improve (even a lot) in the area of impact and relevance. That is also the reason why, at the last Dies Natalis, the Rector announced that Tilburg University, with regards to impact, wants to focus on three areas:

  • Towards a Resilient Society

  • Enhancing Health & Well-being

  • Creating Value from Data

The Rector asked Ton Wilthagen, Johan Denollet, and me to lead these programs. This Impact Team, as it is called, has written an essay on the ‘why’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ of creating more impact for our research. You can consider this as the “Impact Profile” of our university.


Keyword in this essay is ‘Connection’. A better connection to the outside world, but also a better connection between the research and researchers of the different Schools, and the different Departments within a School. Personally, I think there is a lot to be gained in this respect. Many researchers work in a somewhat isolated position, doing heavily specialized, mono-disciplinary research; and many researchers are not aware what is going on in other Schools (or even other Departments). Let me be honest: only due to my role in Data Science, I discovered the many other colleagues at this campus also working on Data Science related topics.  As a consequence, for the outside world, it is not clear what our Research and Impact Profile is. On the other hand, Tilburg University has much to offer in solving or coping with big societal problems. Such problems are often too complex for just one discipline; they need the input of multiple disciplines. That is one of the reasons why we should connect more!

A good mix

I am very enthusiastic about the new Impact Program, but, personally, I am also aware of a big danger: that we exaggerate “impact”, and become too extreme in this. Excellence in research, theoretical research, publishing in top journals, and so on is still extremely important. We should aim for a good mix! Some of the researchers do excellent theoretical research, others more applied research, some do both. Let us respect each other and work together. We need each other!

My colleague Ton Wilthagen summarized it as follows: “The university has three main responsibilities: Education, Research, and Impact. Considering the last 3 Rectors: Frank van der Duyn Schouten focused on Research; Philip Eijlander on Education; and Emile Aarts on Impact”.

I started with a personal note on the book Excellence without a soul, and I would like to finish with some personal notes as to why being connected to society and connected to other disciplines has been so important for me:

  • It is very inspiring for me to see that with my research I can improve society a little bit. I did a big project for the Dutch government that finally led to new safety standards for all the dikes in the Netherlands (approved by the House of Parliament, now stated in the law); we saved almost eight billion euros with regards to the existing plan. Another example: my colleague Hein Fleuren started a project at the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), and I joined this team two years ago. The model developed finds an optimal mix for the ingredients for a daily meal, such that all nutritional values are met and logistics costs are minimized. This model has been applied in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Ethiopia. In Syria, due to this model, a million more people could be fed, by using advanced prescriptive analytics. For me, this is “Science with a Soul”, and it inspires me a lot.

  • This new application-driven research resulted in many new scientific questions and results, and we wrote several scientific papers on this. Yes, in top journals. Moreover, due to the connection with other researchers in other fields of Data Science, I got new inspiration / ideas for a totally new research direction in my own field. This will be one of my main research directions in the coming years. So, taking a step outside my research comfort zone resulted in this new, in my view, promising research direction.

  • I discovered that doing research that is impactful is also beneficial for my teaching. The students are very inspired when they hear about the dike project, and the WFP project.

  • It helps me a lot in obtaining grants from NWO and companies, especially grants for PhD students. “Relevance” and “impact” are becoming more and more important criteria for obtaining grants.

I hope that my “Science with a Soul” considerations have offered you some food for thought. I am almost sure that the founding father of our university, “Cobbenhagen” would have agreed with my plea.