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Working together in the Leiden Healthy Society Center: ‘It’s only when you make your research visible that you find each other'

As coordinator and lead promoter respectively of the Leiden Healthy Society Center, psychologists Sandra van Dijk and Anke Klein use interdisciplinary collaboration to resolve the major health problems of the present day. How are they going to do that in the coming period?

The Leiden Healthy Society Center (LHSC) may well have started in Leiden, but similar interdisciplinary partnership networks are springing up elsewhere too. Anke Klein, a specialist in anxiety and stress in young people, is visiting fellow researchers in Australia and understands that expertise centres are springing up there too. Similar centres are also being set up in Germany. Klein: ‘Where exactly the main focus lies is different for each centre, but they all reflect the current zeitgeist.’   

‘A zeitgeist,’ says health psychologist Sandra van Dijk, ‘in which universities are increasingly recognising the importance of societal impact and are making sure that the knowledge that comes from research and teaching also benefits people’s well-being and health. And it works the other way round too: ‘By connecting knowledge institutions, policy and practice, we can make sure that research and teaching are better aligned with current issues among citizens and societal partners.’ 

Mission and objectives of the Leiden Healthy Society Center

The Leiden Healthy Society Center is a partnership between the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and the municipality of Leiden, and is part of the Health and Well-being column of Leiden City of Science. That also includes the University of Applied Sciences, secondary vocational education and the Naturalis Biodiversity Centre. The LHSC aims to work together with these parties and others in society. The centre brings together knowledge, initiatives and issues relating to health and well-being in Leiden, and  encourages and facilitates collaboration.

The LHSC has five objectives. It aims to:

1. Bring together and enrich existing knowledge
2. Build new networks, ideas and initiatives
3. Create a rich data and knowledge infrastructure
4. Involve citizens
5. Strengthen expertise in methods/practices of interdisciplinary collaboration.  

What we don’t (yet) know

Each institute that is part of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences has an LHSC promoter. These people connect and activate colleagues within their institute on the theme of ‘healthy society’.  Anke Klein is lead promoter for the Institute of Psychology, and Sandra van Dijk, as overall coordinator, then brings together the various activities within the institutes and the LHSC. They have had these roles for several months now.

Van Dijk: ‘We started by making an environmental analysis to find out what initiatives there are so that we can create the right conditions for both interdisciplinary collaboration and cooperation with residents and other societal partners. That way you not only get to know one another but you also discover your blind spots: what’s still needed, for example.’

Klein: ‘It’s a lot easier to find one another and work together if you know what kind of expertise and research themes another researcher or teacher is working on.  I do research on anxiety, for example, and teach on the same subject, whereas Sandra is a specialist in lifestyle interventions and behaviour change. Nonetheless, even though we work just one floor apart, we didn’t know that about one another.  In the same way, we want to bring researchers and teachers of Psychology in contact with colleagues from other faculties and other knowledge institutions, such as universities of applied sciences. They too have networks and projects that we can become part of. This way we are able to weave a close-knit collaboration of researchers, teachers and societal partners.’

Knowledge café

One of the first initiatives of the LHSC is a series of  Healthy Society Knowledge cafés: get-togethers where researchers, professionals and policy makers from different disciplines study/work on a specific societal health problem. The first of these meetings is due to take place on 4 July 2023 and will be looking at healthy weight among toddlers and preventing overweight at a later age.

Van Dijk: ‘That may seem like a relatively small, specific problem, but these apparently “small” problems give us insight into larger underlying themes like inequality, poverty and stress, and loneliness among young parents.’  Klein adds: ‘ A lot of studies focus on a small issue, but children are part of a family, and they go to school and live in a particular neighbourhood. These different factors together make up a complex system that you only get a good understanding of when people highlight a problem from their different expertise.’

Van Dijk: ‘We know that an approach that only focuses on the child itself or only on healthy eating doesn’t make much headway.  In particular for people who are in a vulnerable situation, we need an integrated approach that looks beyond the boundaries of particular specialist fields

Big aspirations

Klein and Van Dijk want to spend the rest of their working life at the Leiden Healthy Society Center; they both believe this is the best way to tackle complex social issues together. Klein: ‘That’s your aim as a researcher: you want to make a difference. In my case I want to help children grow up safe, healthy and free of anxiety.  We hope that in the coming years we can create an environment with our partners where researchers, policy makers and society can work together on these kinds of issues.’

Van Dijk: ‘An example is setting up policy labs where scientists join citizens in political decision-making processes to formulate policy in a process of co-creation. The idea is that policymakers don’t just “check in” with a few experts when the decision is almost on the table, but that scientific expertise is involved in the decision-making on welfare and health issues from the start. That really is hugely important.’

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