The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded Starting Grants to no fewer than 10 researchers from the University of Amsterdam (UvA). The laureates are Marija Bartl, Cristóbal Bonelli, Thomas Buser, Corentin Coulais, Ursula Daxecker, Jana Krause, Thomas Leopold, Crystal McMichael, Bastiaan Rutjens and Franciska de Vries.
A Starting Grant is a personal grant of about €1.5 million and provides research support to talented researchers for a period of five years.
Marija Bartl (Center For the Study of European Contract Law): Law as a Vehicle for Social Change: Mainstreaming Non-Extractive Economic Practices
The current economic model is due for urgent revision. The relentless focus on economic growth is ravaging the environment, while the concomitant social problems have either already reached glaring levels (e.g. skyrocketing global inequality) or seem poised to do so (e.g. climate displaced persons). A number of radical proposals, such as prosperity without growth, a circular economy or doughnut economics have been proposed to chart a trajectory towards socio-ecological transformation. Yet such proposals have gained only modest political traction. Maria Bartl will show how law can contribute to making such transformative projects politically credible. More specifically, she will demonstrate how law, and private law in particular, can be used to nurture those existing economic practices that already build on the environmental and social aspirations embodied by such projects. The project has two main objectives. The first is to offer a set of legal tools and policy proposals that would make the adoption of environmentally and socially non-extractive economic practices, such as social cooperatives or solidary financial institutions, more attractive for people to implement. The second objective is to theorise how the law can turn seemingly utopian projects for socio-ecological transformation into a realistic legal-political projects.
Cristóbal Bonelli (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research): Worlds of Lithium: A Multi-Sited and Transnational Study of Transitions towards Post-Fossil Fuel Societies
Cristóbal Bonelli’s project is an anthropological study that examines how the strategic replacement of fossil fuels with electric transport powered by lithium-ion batteries is taking place in Chile, the largest lithium producer worldwide, China, the world leader in lithium-ion battery production, and Norway, likely to become the world’s first ‘zero emission’ electric vehicle country. A lot of public attention goes to the promise of electric vehicles, meaning less oil will be needed for road transport. What remains hidden, however, are the disruptive transformations of the landscapes and societies through which lithium travels. It is these transformations that Bonelli will bring into public view with his project. In doing so, he will provide an anthropological early warning to European policymakers concerned with the electrification of transport, thus encouraging a better informed discussion of the sustainability of processes currently powering unequal ‘Worlds of Lithium’.
Thomas Buser (Amsterdam School of Economics): Competition, Time Pressure, Public Speaking and Multitasking: The Role of Willingness and Ability to Cope with Pressure in Explaining Individual Differences and Inequality in Career Outcomes
Thomas Buser studies how personality shapes educational decisions and career paths, and how, in turn, personality is shaped by the environment. In his project he will focus on willingness and ability to perform in competitive environments, to work under time pressure, to speak in public and to multitask. His aim is to better understand how individuals sort into different careers and to explain differences across population groups. Ultimately, the results might help to identify characteristics of professional and educational environments which repel otherwise qualified individuals, thereby reducing both productivity and diversity. Examples include high-stakes exams that reward ability to work under time pressure rather than actual knowledge, or work environments which reward competitiveness rather than teamwork.
Corentin Coulais (Institute of Physics): Extreme Mechanics of Metamaterials: From Ideal to Realistic Conditions
Mechanical metamaterials are artificially constructed materials with special structural properties that are used in e.g. prosthetics and aerospace. They have emerged as the most promising platform for the rational design of ‘extreme’ functionalities. However, this exciting progress has mostly been realised in ideal conditions using a purely geometric framework, which dramatically limits the potential of metamaterials. In his project Coulais proposes to focus on a diametrically different, but crucial aspect of metamaterials: their extreme mechanics under realistic conditions. He will develop a completely new framework to allow for deviations from idealised scenarios. This breakthrough will lead to powerful tools to predict the sensitivity to inhomogeneous boundary conditions, geometric imperfections and dynamic effects. Just as the fundamental understanding of defects and dislocations revolutionised materials science, by exploring perturbations in metamaterials Coulais will push the frontiers of solids mechanics and open up avenues for the design of robust advanced functionalities tailored to realistic complex scenarios in areas from medicine to space exploration.
Ursula Daxecker (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research): Elections, Violence, and Parties
Elections are nearly ubiquitous in the world today. Yet despite their aim to peacefully transfer power, elections in the developing world are often accompanied by substantial violence. For instance, more than a hundred people died during elections held earlier this year in Nigeria. Daxecker will develop a novel, party-centered theory that explains the nature, organisation and consequences of election violence. Political parties are crucial actors linking politicians and citizens, and Daxecker attributes a central role to parties’ organisational and social links. She will examine her theory subnationally in India and Nigeria, two of the world’s largest emerging democracies. The project uses a multi-method approach to examine within-country variation in party institutions, social support and election violence in India and Nigeria, combining fieldwork interviews, quantitative data, survey experiments and surveys.
Jana Krause (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research): Social Resilience, Gendered Dynamics, and Local Peace in Protracted Conflicts
Jana Krause focuses in her project on how civilians protect themselves in armed conflicts and build peace locally. She will analyse how communities ‘resilient’ to conflict dynamics can remain resilient despite protracted and multi-layered conflict cycles and how they can contribute to a sustainable peace. The need for a greater analytical focus on the causes and consequences of civilian agency and social resilience is evident in the modest international peacebuilding and civilian protection record. Krause pursues an empirically grounded research agenda on social resilience. She will comparatively analyse resilience building and barriers to peace in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Kenya and Nigeria. The project uses a fieldwork-based multi-method research design that combines quantitative techniques for assessing the consequences of international peacebuilding efforts with regard to local peace and women’s empowerment with context-sensitive qualitative analysis of the often-unintended consequences of social resilience and hidden barriers to changing gender relations and peace.
Thomas Leopold (Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research): Uncovering the Kinship Matrix: A New Study of Solidarity and Transmission in European Families
What people regard as their family is usually a large network: children, parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, stepparents and stepsiblings. Current data and research are limited to a small segment of this network – often only the ‘nuclear family’ of parents and children. In his project Thomas Leopold will extend the nuclear view to map out the family network in unprecedented scope and detail. With his team he will collect new multi-actor survey data on 10,000 families in five European countries, combined with large-scale data from genealogical sources and national registers. These data will show the family not as a nuclear unit but as a kinship matrix – a large, diverse and multigenerational web of relationships. Based on this view, Leopold will study how the family matters: as a private safety net insuring against health risks and financial hardship, as a social network protecting from isolation and loneliness, and as a source of capital promoting education and careers.
Crystal McMichael (Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics): Assessing Legacies of Past Human Activities in Amazonian Forests
Amazon forests contribute vital ecosystem services, including maintaining biodiversity and storing large amounts of carbon. It is now evident that recurrent human disturbance of Amazonia over the last 2,000 years, causing fire and deforestation, were significant in some areas. Those disturbances likely modify subsequent vegetation dynamics. The emerging paradigm of human disturbance is a challenge to global ecological understanding. Crystal McMichael’s project will reliably determine whether human disturbances occurred in locations that form the basis of global carbon models. McMichael will integrate ecological, paleoecological, archaeological, chemical and biogeographic analyses to assess the degree to which past human disturbance drives the diversity patterns and carbon dynamics observed in modern Amazonian forests. The results of the project will provide the first quantification of local-scale recovery processes exceeding 100 years in tropical forests, and this will determine if observed forest dynamics are driven by disturbances that occurred before modern ecological surveys began.
Bastiaan Rutjens (Psychology Research Institute): Developing and Testing the Psychological Distance to Science Model
Increases in science scepticism among the public represent an important societal challenge. While recent research has shed light on some of the ideological correlates of specific manifestations of science scepticism - such as climate change denial and vaccine hesitancy - a unifying psychological principle that can be applied to science scepticism more generally has not yet been identified. In this project Bastiaan Rutjens will investigate psychological distance to science as a precursor of science scepticism in various domains, ranging from climate science to vaccination and artificial intelligence, as well as of general trust in science.
Franciska de Vries (Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics): Ecosystem Response to Drought: Unravelling the Unexplored Role of Plant-Soil Feedback
As the world has seen all too well in recent years, drought is severely threatening our ecosystems and their functioning. It can cause strong shifts in plant community composition, which might lead to a new ecosystem state from which it is difficult to revert. These shifts can have severe consequences, including a loss of species, habitat and ecosystem function. While we would expect drought-adapted species to increase after drought, often we see a counter-intuitive increase in plant species that should be vulnerable to drought. Franciska de Vries will test whether these ‘vulnerable’ species use the fungi and bacteria that live in the soil to improve their own regrowth after drought, and whether this causes persistent shifts in plant community composition. This knowledge is crucial for predicting and mitigating the effects of drought on our ecosystems and preventing irreversible shifts in plant community composition.
Zeynep Akata, who is currently still working at the UvA’s Informatics Institute, is also receiving a Starting Grant. Akata will conduct her project, titled ‘Deeply Explainable Intelligent Machines’, at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen in Germany, where she will become a professor as of October 2019.
This communication was first published 3 September by University of Amsterdam.