Science and Technology for the Benefit of Society
In light of the far-reaching changes we are seeing in our society – whether these are caused by the climate crisis or other global challenges – universities are also called on to play their intrinsic part as social bridge builders even more rigorously. As a place of research, teaching, and transfer, universities can use their knowledge to actively help shape sustainable societal transformation and future-proof technical development and to make a valuable contribution to the cause. In the Sustainability Mission Statement, the members of RWTH have jointly committed to actively seize this opportunity:
For hundreds of years, universities have stood for the interaction between education and research. Lately, they have also come to face a range of challenges as well as expectations regarding their roles: educating an ever-growing number of students, generating knowledge and research findings that are also applied in industry, developing the university as an ideal site for integrated and interdisciplinary work, while simultaneously promoting international networking and mobility.
In order to meet these requirements, a future-oriented university needs to be particularly agile while also contributing to meeting the SDGs. In our University of Excellence proposal “The Integrated Interdisciplinary University of Science and Technology. Knowledge. Impact. Networks.”, we described RWTH’s goal to contribute to and help shape a sustainable society. This requires a holistic understanding of sustainability; we can only succeed with the transformation to a sustainable society for future generations if the three dimensions of environment, economy, and society are tackled at the same time. With its fundamental and application-oriented research in a variety of fields, RWTH is making significant contributions to sustainable development.
We are committed to developing sustainable technology and taking social and economic aspects into account right from the start. This is the standard we set ourselves not only in our research, but also in the areas of technology transfer and innovation. By promoting disruptive start-ups and spin-off companies in particular, we expect to see a wide range of stimulating springboard innovations.
Our commitment to excellence also holds us responsible for pursuing a self-reflective and pluralistic values debate regarding excellent research – both among the stakeholders of our teaching and research projects at RWTH and with additional scientific and non-scientific bodies at local, national, and international level. Our students and early-career researchers are an important pillar of change. They are the ones who are pushing toward more sustainable practices and are ready to take the reins on this transformation process themselves. We want to use this energy to jointly strengthen RWTH’s impact on sustainability issues.
RWTH endeavors to promote a unique education and research environment that encompasses the convergence of knowledge, approaches, and findings from the fields of humanities, economics, engineering, natural sciences, and life sciences. This involves exploiting the strong research networks and intellectual curiosity of its staff to address bold scientific questions, transfer forefront knowledge, and drive innovative discoveries that impact current and future global challenges.
All members of RWTH are expected to carry out their research with the highest level of integrity and dedication to excellence, and to follow the University’s Code of Conduct in all interactions with third parties on behalf of RWTH.
The Excellence Initiative of the German federal and state governments provided RWTH with a unique opportunity to raise its research profile by strengthening the natural sciences and fostering interdisciplinary research. These were the first steps in RWTH’s steady transformation into an Integrated Interdisciplinary University of Technology. Research topics include sustainable synthetic fuels, data mining, computational science, production technology, high-performance materials, health, renewable resources, and mobility, and this research will continue to focus on understanding complex systems even in the future.
At the core of the research conducted at RWTH is the University’s agile governance mindset with its particular ability to modernize, react quickly, and collaborate with various partners. In light of this, RWTH’s strong alliances such as its cooperation with Forschungszentrum Jülich in the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance (JARA) play an important role. This unique national and international research, education, and transfer environment with its dynamic networks is redefining disciplinary and organizational boundaries.
Cutting-edge research requires the freedom to develop new ideas and experiment. The funding opportunities offered by the Exploratory Research Space (ERS) provide a platform for scientists who are looking to join forces to develop highly innovative research ideas and to lay the foundations for further, larger-scale projects over the course of interdisciplinary research projects. ERS is aimed at experienced scientists as well as early-career researchers, and fosters an ideal atmosphere for dialogue and exchange between the disciplines by offering concrete activities for the researchers.
A university can only exist with and thanks to the people who work, carry out research, and communicate with one another there. This is why RWTH is continually expanding its proactive, target-group-specific personnel recruitment strategy in the global competition for outstanding scientists. One crucial aspect for the success of this strategy lies in not only connecting all the members of the campus community with one another, but in particularly focusing on interlinking researchers, industry partners, benefactors, and many other stakeholders. Open communication in this context forms the basis for long-term relationships and positive collaboration.
Sustainability and social responsibility are firmly integrated in the University’s approach to research, and run through almost all research areas. Sustainability in research can manifest in many different ways (see Figure above):
RWTH initiates projects that research concrete sustainability-related questions and are explicitly intended to contribute to their solutions. These include the EU project MIX-UP. The aim of this project is to establish a circular (bio)economy for plastics.
In contrast to this specific, more narrowly focused “sustainability research,” other teams deal with the societal impact of research findings and thus conduct “socially responsible research” in their projects, such as those undertaken at HumTec.
“Research for sustainable development” is, however, the largest area explored at RWTH. This category encompasses the large number of projects where scientists examine the major societal challenges of our time in interdisciplinary teams. In addition to the eight profile areas at RWTH, these teams also include the new Center for Circular Economy (CCE) and the Center for Sustainable Hydrogen Systems (CSHS). The CCE pursues a multidisciplinary and networked approach to a circular economy and combines the expertise from all RWTH faculties both strategically and with regard to content, to foster large-scale projects and joint teaching activities. With the creation of the CSHS, we have established an ideal infrastructure to coordinate hydrogen projects and make them more visible. The aim is to substitute fossil fuels in order to achieve decarbonization. This infrastructure is further promoted in teaching and research as well as in the University’s knowledge transfer activities.
In order to boost the focus on sustainability, research projects and centers at RWTH are approached in a holistic manner with regard to various aspects:
- Is the topic itself sustainable in all of its dimensions? Does the topic make sense on a long-term basis?
- How is sustainability anchored into the structure of the research center – also in terms of gender equality and equal opportunities?
- What happens with large collaborative projects such as Clusters of Excellence, collaborative research centers, or graduate programs once funding runs out?
- What happens on an organizational level with regard to securing jobs on a long-term basis once startup financing is exhausted?
- What happens to start-up financing? Do the centers fund themselves via the topic in question on a medium-term basis?
Founded in 1870 as the “Königlich Rheinisch-Westfälische Polytechnische Schule zu Aachen” with the aim of “strengthening the productive power of the economy”, RWTH still stands for the successful implementation of this idea over 150 years later. One of the cornerstones of the university strategy is the translation of findings from basic and applied research into societally relevant innovations. Driving these ideas to market is of crucial importance in ensuring that university research findings can have a real impact on sustainable development.
One manifestation of this innovative strength is the vibrant spirit of collaboration between universities and external research institutions and companies on the RWTH Aachen University campus. As a result of these collaborations, university research has a direct path to concrete (industrial) fields of application and products, allowing for the creation of agile feedback and development processes. RWTH is currently setting up a technology incubation program designed to help talented and motivated individuals to set up impactful technology companies. With over 75 RWTH start-ups every year, numerous partner companies, over 190 inventions, and a strong network, the RWTH Innovation Entrepreneurship Center offers all of the necessary resources and expertise to support founders and inventors, with the company RWTH Innovation GmbH serving as the operational structure. A physical platform has also been set up in the form of the Collective Incubator, where students can experience entrepreneurship first hand.
Research knowledge transfer in the area of sustainability is based on transdisciplinary and transformative sustainability research, which seeks to develop sustainability solutions in collaboration with transfer partners and, where possible, puts them into practice. The aim is to strengthen the capacity of the various stakeholders in a given field to take action with regard to sustainability. This involves innovative strength, forward thinking, and the precautionary principle, as well as problem-solving capability, following the guidelines set out in HochN.
The transfer audit helped the University to derive a comprehensive strategy. Similarly to the research sphere of action, RWTH also distinguishes between different levels when it comes to sharing sustainable technology solutions.On the one hand, there is the question of whether the method of technology transfer is sustainable:
RWTH understands transfer as the continuous and mutual exchange of ideas, knowledge, technology and people within RWTH, with partner organizations, societal groups and industry.
From a longevity perspective, long-term partnerships, consistent support for inventors and inventions, as well as the development of individual exploitation strategies all help to ensure that knowledge transfer has a sustainable focus. On the other hand, issues relating to sustainability are also pursued at a content level, e.g. through collaborations with strategic partners of RWTH, RWTH Innovation GmbH, and the companies located on campus.
Quantitative indicators such as publication data are only meaningful to a limited extent when determining whether sustainable research is being conducted. For example, any institute carrying out research that is not project-based, would not be listed as pursuing a sustainability-related project. The impact of the acquired findings also cannot be fully quantified. It is therefore not possible to accurately convey sustainability-related research undertaken at RWTH using quantitative data.
Nevertheless, quantitative indicators are used to provide an initial impression of the sustainability impact of the research at RWTH. The aim is to lay the foundation for further discussion and a more sustainable university, with the expectation that the indicators will make it possible to get an approximation of the strengths and weaknesses of the research and the transfer with regard to sustainability.
In concrete terms, the question as to whether a project makes a contribution to sustainability is asked in the case of third-party-funded projects, for example. On the one hand, this is intended to start a reflection process regarding how the aspect of sustainability can be taken into account in the project or where it is already addressed in the project. On the other hand, the intention on a medium-term basis is to allow for initial quantitative statements regarding the sustainable impact of the projects at RWTH, in this case by evaluating third-party funding.
In a first approach to quantifying sustainable research at the University, any papers published by RWTH scientists can also be analyzed for thematic ties to the SDGs. Such an analysis was conducted by the University Library’s Bibliometrics Team. Based on already defined search requests that allow for comparability, the SciVal analysis tool is used to turn the spotlight on any research efforts that support the SDGs. The collection of this data shows that RWTH performs strongly, particularly in the area of environmental sustainability, and that it has a comparably above-average publication rate and citation frequency, suggesting a high relevance of the generated findings (see Figure 2.4).
Relevant research contributions are particularly achieved in the RWTH Profile Areas (see the following section), where a large proportion of the research carried out at RWTH is concentrated. A number of example projects are described in the following section. A continually growing list of sustainability-focused research projects in German is available at www.nachhaltigkeitslandschaft.rwth-aachen.de.
RWTH has pooled its scientific expertise in an interdisciplinary research environment of eight cross-faculty profile areas to work on solving the great social challenges of our time in interdisciplinary teams using innovative approaches. In these profile areas, scientists from the different disciplines work together to create a solid foundation for societally relevant innovations based on the findings from fundamental and applied research. They coordinate their research activities, use state-of-the-art infrastructures, and create large research networks with national and international partners from science and industry.
The Mobility & Transport Engineering (MTE) profile area, for example, conducts research into sustainable and low-emission mobility, road safety, innovative mobility concepts for rural areas, automated and connected mobility, traffic data management and digitalization, as well as the networking of the mobility and energy sector.
The Production Engineering (ProdE) profile area develops concepts for sustainable production, e.g. aiming to biologically transform production taking into account fundamental principles from the field of biology.
Numerous large joint projects tackled under the umbrella of the Energy, Chemical and Process Engineering (ECPE) profile area focus on the sustainable generation, storage, use, and distribution of energy sources, and of hydrogen in particular.
The eight profile areas are presented in more detail on the following pages, each with an example project of their choice.