Director’s note:
Marc-Alain Widdowson

Portrait image of Marc-Alain Widdowson

It seems that at the beginning of 2021 I looked down and when I looked up again the year was over. 2021 was a ‘nose to the grindstone’ year for all at ITM. Not only were we working on realising our Institutional Policy Plan along with the added demands brought by COVID-19, but also on securing new funding and initiatives to grow and ensure our future. What has this meant for us at ITM? Non-stop commitment and delivery. With this we made quantum steps towards ITM’s key annual goals of continuing to build a strong ITM team given expected retirements, delivering excellence in education, moving towards more sustainable funding, and of strengthening our robust partnerships across our ecosystem to collaborate and co-create on solutions to health challenges across the world.

We said goodbye to several senior academic and management staff and welcomed new staff to carry on the mission. We saw the appointment of two new departmental heads. Lut Lynen handed on the baton to Johan van Griensven who became the new Head of Department of Clinical Sciences. Similarly, Kevin Ariën has succeeded Jean-Claude Dujardin as Head of Department of Biomedical Sciences. Both Jean-Claude Dujardin and Lut Lynen have gone above and beyond as founding leaders of their respective departments in making them the centres of excellence they are today, and a key part of ITM’s identity. Our General Manager Ann Peters has worked tirelessly to consolidate the General Management Offices with new staff and more efficient processes ITM-wide.  

2021 also saw the mandated evaluations of many of our professors and it was gratifying to see many of them rewarded for their accomplishments with promotions. Very excitingly, ITM has expanded its footprint to work more closely with partners, with the official recognition of the new ITM office by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The ITM-DRC Office is now a self-standing unit of ITM and is almost fully staffed.

While sharing my gratitude for those leaving, I am excited to see those in new positions getting their teams off to good starts. 

In education, a thank you goes to the students who came to Antwerp amid pandemic chaos. Despite COVID-19, we had the first 17 students graduating from our new Master’s in Tropical Health and we recruited 25 to the newly named Master’s in Global One Health. I congratulate the teaching staff for our second year of having to move to hybrid education. As for many educational establishments, this has stimulated our thinking on our overall strategy of creating the most impact with our educational offering. 

Of course, to continue to achieve our ambitions, we are focusing on ensuring sustainable funding. Here the year ended well. I would like to thank the Flanders Department of Economy, Science and Innovation (EWI) who in December allocated an extra 1 million euros to boost our infrastructure by setting up a Clinical Trials Centre and the complete renewal of our immunology laboratory. In addition, EWI will give 1 million euros a year structural subsidy, for the hiring of a number of research professors including in ‘One Health’, (Re-)Emerging Infectious Diseases and Healthy Ageing. The extra amount will also mean the establishment of a new Population Data Science Hub. This recognises ITM’s commitment to excellence in research.

2021 also brought the closure of our fourth framework agreement between the Directorate-General Development Cooperation and Humanitarian Aid (DGD) and ITM. Our 2021 work centred on research capacity building in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The last year has also brought another financial commitment from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Belgian Government to sleeping sickness to continue to push this historic disease towards oblivion.

With the end of our previous agreement comes a new commitment and I am pleased that our fifth five-year agreement with DGD has been approved (2022-2026). For this new agreement with new countries and new mechanisms, we recognise the increasing capacity and strength of our partners and want to emphasise two words for our future work: collaboration and co-creation. These best describe the modus operandi of the ITM partnerships we will continue to grow and foster. These are partnerships where all parties bring additional value and strengths, striving for academic and scientific excellence in order to provide evidence to improve people’s lives. With this I thank our partners for their commitment and partnership and I very much look forward to working with you and our strengthened ITM team into 2022 and beyond.

Finally, I would like to congratulate everyone for keeping the eye on the ball through another unpredictable year. It is easy to get excited about increased funding and opportunities, but equally easy to forget that the management and administration of the work is at least as much work as the implementation. Success depends on commitment across all of ITM. COVID has not only proven ITM’s strengths of excellence and partnerships, which anchors all we do and allows us to pivot to new challenges, but also the resilience of management and administrative staff.  

Last but not least, thank you to the Board of Governors for their support, and especially to those who will be leaving us in 2022. A particular thank you goes, of course, to Cathy Berx who has untiringly chaired the Board for 14 years through considerable reorganisation, a new director and a pandemic. ITM will miss you. 

Marc-Alain Widdowson