The infrastructure of innovation: along the country’s research centres

Innovations don’t just happen. They need the right context to emerge. They need space, tools, equipment, clusters and investments to foster and ferment. Indeed, without the infrastructure, they’d be no innovations. As such, we’ve toured the country and visited some of the most crucial research and development centers available to the scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs of today and tomorrow.

Mu.Zee, Oostende

The Belgian coastal city of Ostend is home to Mu.Zee (a play on the word ‘museum’ and ‘zee’, the Flemish word for sea) which specialises in Belgian art from the beginning of the country’s existence. In 2008, the West-Flanders Provincial Museum for Modern Art welcomed the city’s Museum for Fine Arts inside its 1940’s modernist building and former warehouse, giving way to Mu.ZEE as we now know it. The research takes as starting point the museum’s 6000-piece collection which includes works by Léon Spilliaert, Roger Raveel, Luc Tuymans and many more by Constant Permeke and James Ensor since incorporating the Permekemuseum and the Ensorhuis into its institution.

The purpose of the research, first and foremost, is to place the collection into new contexts, studying the artists’ approach within a historical framework and share it with a broad public. Barbara de Jong (seen below studying an early Ensor painting), head of Conservation and Collection Management, is responsible for artworks being stored, organized and exhibited properly and repaired when necessary. During the restoration process, the artists’ choice of material and technique are kept in close account, ensuring that the form of the work will remain as close to its original as possible. In some cases, paint or glue samples are sent to a lab for further analysis. The same department also researches more theoretical questions such as, for instance, whether Permeke’s paintings naturally darkened with time or if they always were meant to be this dark.

Mu.ZEE is currently working on the Ensor Research Project in collaboration with Antwerp’s Museum of Fine Arts (which is still being renovated) which aims to analyse the master’s paintings by studying its historical context, the pictured subjects, its material and technical aspects while combining historical sources and scientific research. The results of these different fields of research will result into an exhibition in 2018. Other domains of research performed under the museum’s modernist roof are archiving and curating. The museum’s archive consists of documents, monographs, sketch books, old photographs, newspaper articles, letters – all connected to the artists in its collection. Besides having this treasure trove of information at their disposal, curators also work with experts and travel around the country visiting collections, looking for artworks to feature in the next exhibition, and, inevitably, have to fill in a lot of paperwork. “The first months of research are the most exciting,” explains curator Adriaan Gonnissen. The curators and head of conservation also work closely when discussing the transportation, conservation and presentation of the works. The findings of all these parallel investigations are then bundled into a catalogue.

SCK•CEN, Mol

The Research Centre for Nuclear Energy in Mol begun about 60 years ago to test and promote nuclear energy, having easy access to uranium from Congolese mines. A team of 750 researchers from almost 40 countries work together here, researching everything from the effects of radiation on people undergoing radiotherapy and how to dispose of nuclear waste in a responsible way to plants that could grow on Mars. Security and safety – in the field of operating nuclear power plants, nuclear waste, aerospace, health issues and our natural environment – are the two main pillars of the research conducted on site.

Even though nuclear power stations may slowly be starting to be replaced by alternatives such as wind turbines and solar energy, SCK•CEN still has a lot of work on its hands. They will have to monitor and accompany the safe closure of these structures and the nuclear waste they’ve produced, while educating others at the same time. In the medical research field, radiobiologists study the effects of ionizing radiation on medical doctors and patients, as well as the general population. SCK•CEN is responsible for a large part of the world’s production of medical radioisotopes which are used to diagnose cancer – in peak times it produces up to 65% of these. Many cancer patients do not realize the diagnostic treatment they receive is produced on Belgian soil. Furthermore, research regarding targeted radiotherapy combined with nanotechnology holds promise for a more effective, personalized treatment with less damage to healthy organs.

Unique to the centre is its ability to investigate the effects of weightlessness and radiation simultaneously on different cell types by using a 3D random positioning machine, thus connecting radiobiology with space research. “We are one of the few laboratories in the world who can do this,” says radiobiologist Marjan Moreels. In another wing, research connected to aerospace is being conducted. Astronauts and their equipment are exposed to large amounts of radiation and must be monitored. Scientists also research which organisms could be used for food and oxygen production when astronauts finally reach Mars. Microbiologist Hugo Moors swears by spirulina, a cyanobacterium that inhabited our planet more than two billion years ago and produces oxygen. These microorganisms are believed to be the first that produced oxygen through photosynthesis and dramatically influenced the composition of our previously oxygen- poor atmosphere into what it is today. “In a hundred years, everyone will be eating spirulina,” he says convincingly.

Centre Spatial de Liège

The Centre Spatial de Liège (CSL) is devoted to applied research in space science, specifically involving the effects of harsh environments on optical devices like telescopes and cameras. The research centre is connected to the University of Liège and works in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA). They’re responsible for developing parts of the PROBA payload, the only satellite built on Belgian soil, with the first model launched into space in 2001. During the tests, it’s crucial to avoid contamination like grease, silicone, dust and certain gasses. This is why the CSL features several cleanrooms with units that can be shut off from the rest of the space to control the amount of particles in the air and reduce the level of contamination to a minimum. The gold-coated aluminum foil works as a heat and radiation shield, which enables the specific environment created on the inside to remain constant. “If any type of optical instrument is required on a new satellite from the ESA, it will pass through us first to be calibrated and tested,” proudly attests professor Serge Habraken.

The tests performed at this high-level research centre include the reaction of optical systems to extremely low temperatures (simulated inside a vacuum chamber) as well as the very strong vibrations (necessary for the rocket launch). Once the device has been placed on a machine that simulates vibrations, it will be finalised, then incorporated into a new satellite called the Solar Orbiter and launched into outer space in April 2018 to explore the Sun. Under vacuum, the optical system faces a system called an artificial star. The apparatus emits light from different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum (mostly invisible to the human eye) to test the sensitivity of the optical instrument that is mounted on the moveable base in front of it. The exchange of skills between CSL and the university is very important: the scientists at the university are at the base of the idea or technology which is then designed and tested at the CSL. Once refined, tweaked and developed, the university’s astrophysicists work with the data collected by that same technology. “We build instruments that make is possible and they use our data,” Serge explains.

The Royal Library, Brussels

When the Royal Library was built in the 1950’s, no effort (or expenses for that matter) were spared: marble walls, floor- to-floor ceilings and beautiful wooden furniture, all built by Atelier de Coene. And even though some parts were modified over the years, the library has kept a lot of its charm and continues to attract many visitors, students and researchers.

The enormous collection is a continuation of the 15th century library of the Dukes of Burgundy, divided into three large sections: the historic collection (antique coins, old maps, manuscripts, music scores and the likes), the legal deposit that just turned 50 (a copy of all printed matter published in Belgium must legally be submitted here) and the umbrella holdings of all Belgian university libraries. “We own over 750 kilometers of book shelves,” says department head Erwin Pairon. The Royal Library’s coin cabinet holds about 220,000 coins and medals as well as an extensive library of numismatics (the study of currency) that is open to the public. Most of the studies involve observing the coins’ text and imagery using a magnifying glass, looking in catalogues and digging up old maps to see, for example, how the currency and its users spread themselves over time. One of the coins in the collection, featuring a satyr on one side, is the only known tetradrachm of Aetna ever to be found. Needless to say, it is extremely valuable and the most expensive Greek coin in the world. The medals were used as souvenirs or art objects and did not have any monetary value; in ancient times it could be a way of sharing your portrait with others. “You could buy a small house with one of these drawers,” says Roman coin specialist Johan Van Heesch.

Other than the coin cabinet, The Royal Library also houses a department dedicated to studies concerning rare manuscripts, meaning documents that were exclusively handwritten. Focusing on their content, their origins and on more technical aspects, a lot can be learnt from these documents. From the checking of historic facts, studying the evolution of language or indulging in beautiful initials to questions on how writing or the quality of paper and parchment have evolved over the centuries. Researchers can also consult writings that never saw the printing press or the original, hand-written versions of published works that can provide unique insights into the author’s writing and thought process.

Keramis, La Louvière

In 2015, Keramis, the Walloon centre for ceramics, opened its doors on the site of the last Belgian faience company, Royal Boch, around which the city of La Louvière emerged from 1841 onwards. The centre functions as an educational space, incorporating three impressive bottle kilns used in the former factory and a large collection of ceramics from different periods that inspire and nourish designers and artists’ explorations around ceramics.

The brand new building also serves as a contemporary art space, somewhat breaking loose from the exclusive focus on ceramics, as well as a place for research and artist residencies. Better yet, Keramis also invites ceramists from other countries to share their craft and organizes workshops for all ages, acting as a platform for new methods in ceramics. In this workshop, Keramis’ ceramicist Guy Woestyn works together with designers and artists who come knocking at the centre’s door. During the preliminary research, they must be able to justify why they specifically want to use ceramics. Then, they join in a collaborative effort to research the feasibility of their project and what type of techniques must be used before starting the actual production.

Currently, a new wing is under construction where the in-house commercial production of design and art objects developed in the centre will be made possible, allowing for every step of the production process to be carried out in one location. At its core, the goals of the centre are to valorize and preserve the long history of this craft, but also to “project itself into the future and be a place for production and to encourage and research the use of ceramics in design and the contemporary art field,” says Ludovic. “We aim for focused research and the re-appropriation of old techniques in collaboration with our ceramist.” More recently, designer Nicolas Bovesse has joined forces with Woestyn’s knowledge and skills to create a new object, a table that the Belgian designer will be presenting at the Milano Design Fair this year.

The Tropical Institute, Antwerp

The Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITM) in Antwerp is an internationally renown organisation for education, research and services in tropical medicine and international health. When visiting the many controlled science laboratories in the Institute, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that, despite being housed in a 1930’s art deco building, life-saving research in the areas of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria treatments are being conducted on a daily basis by an estimated 450 researchers from around the world who have all come to the world-leading institution in a common bid to fight infectious diseases and shape the health care policies of tomorrow in developing countries. Here, collaboration with other countries, especially those where certain diseases are typically found, is crucial. This mutual exchange of knowledge and resources between the institute and its local affiliates is one of ITM’s strong points. They attract many international doctoral students, who combine fieldwork in their home country with spells in Antwerp. “We have a strong link with high-endemic countries. Fieldwork and mutual exchange is extremely valuable: we learn from each other,” says microbiologist Leen Rigouts.

Leen Denis and Karen Jennes specialise in studying mosquitoes who might become malaria vectors, meaning carriers and spreaders of the phatogens. They work closely with local researchers in a variety of countries (Cambodia for instance), setting up research facilities on site and minutely numbering and storing every specimen they gather in separate plastic tubes, a key component of the research process. “We easily total 30,000 mosquitoes in our collection and every mosquito has its own ID-code,” says Karen. There is also a programme that keeps a close eye on the mosquito population in Belgium: potentially dangerous specimens like the Asian tiger mosquito are unknowingly brought over in shipping containers filled with second-hand tires or bamboo plants that hold water. Using CO2-emitting traps, the insects are caught and then studied and stored here. Microbiologist Leen Rigouts is involved in the research of mycobacteria that cause diseases like tuberculosis, leprosy and Buruli ulcer. To give some context to the research conducted in the institution: each year, 1,8 million people die from tuberculosis and about one third of the world population is (latently) infected. The Institute houses the world’s largest collection of mycobacteria, with over 800 strains publicly available. Each tube contains millions of freeze-dried bacteria and they all fit into this small room filled with just a few fridges and freezers which can then be taken out and used for in-house research or provided to research centres and companies upon request.

Laboratory of Tropical Crop Improvement, Leuven

The Laboratory for Tropical Crop Improvement in Leuven has a long- standing tradition in research on bananas. The banana was the first domesticated crop, about 8000 to 9000 years ago. “And justly so!” says professor Rony Swennen, after having lived in Nigeria for over a decade and with more than 30 years experience in banana research. The crop has provided mankind with fibers for clothing, leaves for roofing and plates and, of course, food. The edible parts not only being the fruits themselves, but also the root (which is ground) and the flowers that serve as a kind of salad. The main purpose of the Centre for Tropical Crop Improvement’s ‘banana wing’ is a fundamental research to better produce varieties to help small farmers in the tropics. About 15% of the world’s bananas are exported, but the centre focuses on the other 85% which form a staple food for 400 million people, providing many new improved varieties to local farmers.

The lab develops improved varieties resistant to drought or certain fungi that produce more fruit or contain higher amounts of vitamin A, be it alone or in collaboration. This is done by crossing certain varieties resulting in improved hybrids. There are two large greenhouses on campus with adult plants growing both (non-) edible varieties, but mostly young in-vitro plants in a tightly controlled environment for experimental purposes. The preservation and protection of diversity is of utmost importance: there are more than 1,500 types of banana plants, but many edible varieties succumb to pests and diseases. The DNA, morphology and growth behaviour of these varieties are being mapped for research purposes though, with training and education programs set up abroad giving the lab access to many experimental fields worldwide. The world banana collection will turn 30 this year, consisting of three parts: in-vitro, cryo and the leaf bank. The first is kept under low light and low temperatures in test tubes and is used to supply varieties to more than 100 countries for research and production. “We can generate millions of plants out of just one test-tube in one year,” says Rony. In the cryo bank, the plants are stored at freezing temperatures and can theoretically be preserved forever, ensuring they are protected from extinction. Frozen dried leaves from the leaf bank are sent around the world to different research centres for DNA extraction intended for genetic research. To support a development project involving banana cultivation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the centre has even collaborated with Improvisio NV in the creation of a new line of banana-based alcoholic beverages named Musa Lova, Musa being latin for banana, with parts of the profits going back to help Kisangani’s banana farmers.