Indian fields

More global, within our borders and beyond

Inclusive, global, sustainable development: the theme of the National Research Agenda is designed to challenge researchers to cooperate with their non-Western colleagues. “Problems, solutions, scientific knowledge – they’re no longer local. We can benefit considerably from collaboration and exchange.”

Are there links the between sustainable development goals in the National Research Agenda and the work being done by RIVM? Wiebe Bijker, chair of the NWO WOTRO Science for Global Development steering committee, and Hans van Oers, Chief Science Officer at RIVM, independently share their thoughts on the matter.

“RIVM devotes more attention to the sustainable development goals than I would have thought,” says Bijker, emeritus professor of technology and society at Maastricht University, who is pleasantly surprised by his visit to the website. Seven of the 17 sustainable development goals set by the UN are being actively pursued – the current yield of the ‘Global Goals at RIVM’ project. Hans van Oers, who is also a professor of public health at Tilburg University, heads that project. The UN goals and the National Research Agenda both offered excellent reasons to explore how RIVM research contributes to both. “By now, we have reached the point that we are looking into where we could do even more.”

Earth's carrying capacity

For Hans van Oers, the new agenda for global sustainable development goals is an important development. “If we want to leave something behind for our children and grandchildren, then we need to stay within the limits our planet’s capacity.” Governments, he says, are now more expressly and cohesively integrating sustainable development goals into policy proposals. “It’s up to the countries themselves to decide what they’re going to work on. In the Netherlands, we’re doing good work on a number of subgoals such as drinking water, sanitation, and toilets. But clean air for everyone is still a problem here. The Dutch governments really needs to start addressing it. RIVM is primarily trying to monitor progress on these societal goals using measurable indicators and computational models. For example, we have calculated the impact on air quality of the increase of the speed limit to 130 kmph on national motorways.”

Desperate need for RIVM Knowledge

Wiebe Bijker explains that the inclusion of the route towards sustainable development goals for inclusive global development in the National Research Agenda has a long history. “NWO WOTRO has been funding research that supports development in non-Western countries for 50 years. This requires an integrated approach to ecological, social and economic aspects.” In addition, he expects that new sustainable development routes from the National Research Agenda will more strongly define research agendas throughout NWO.


RIVM plays a key role in supporting policy, primarily in the Netherlands. Accordingly, it might make sense to also keep sustainable development goals in the developing world in mind, says Bijker. “RIVM has extensive expertise in such areas as healthy living conditions, the circular economy, sanitation, and infectious diseases. There is a desperate need for that expertise in many developing countries. But there’s also a lot going on in those countries. I recently completed a project in India myself. In India, burning crop waste after the rice harvest causes a lot of environmental damage. Fines and regulations don’t help. We’ve looked into whether rice farmers could use that waste to produce bio gas. Solutions and ideas have been devised, in collaboration between various scientists, practitioners and farmers, that could also be relevant to the work that RIVM does in various other areas, including food production and the environment. Problems, solutions, scientific knowledge – those things are no longer local. We can benefit considerably from cooperation and exchange.”

Societal objectives

“The complexity of these problems means you can’t solve them on your own,” adds Hans van Oers. “RIVM already participates in quite a few international networks, within the EU and beyond, for instance in the context of the WHO, and in controlling infectious disease in China. These efforts are not yet very clearly linked to the sustainable development goals; that takes time and awareness, and there is still room for improvement. Even so, those goals are part of it.”

Wiebe Bijker would also focus on research and innovation based on societal objectives. “RIVM refers to the goal as ‘putting an end to hunger’. There’s quite an extensive NWO WOTRO sustainable food production programme that could be part of that. Collaboration with countries in Africa, South America and Asia countries is also conceivable for the goals regarding ‘good health and well-being’ and ‘water and sanitation’.”

International collaboration has already been put into practice in the WHO Collaborating Centre for Risk Assessment of Pathogens in Food and Water, coordinated by RIVM, which includes projects in Mozambique and Ethiopia. Read the article in this magazine.