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ERC grants awarded for research on child protection, evolution and the brain

Three Norwegian researchers have been awarded some NOK 18 million each from the European Research Council (ERC) in the form of a Consolidator Grant, which is awarded to outstanding researchers with ground-breaking projects.

The researchers will each receive EUR 2 million (approximately NOK 18 million) over a five-year period for their projects. The three grant recipients are:

  • Marit Skivenes, University of Bergen, for the project “Discretion and the child’s best interests in child protection”;
  • Anders Martin Fjell, University of Oslo, for the project “The Missing Link of Episodic Memory Decline in Aging: The Role of Inefficient Systems Consolidation”;
  • Lee Hsiang Liow, University of Oslo, for the project “Abiota, Biota, Constraints in Macroevolutionary Processes”.

(Photo: UiB) Marit Skivenes

Marit Skivenes is a political scientist and professor at the Department of Administration and Organisation Theory at the University of Bergen (UiB), where she is conducting pioneering research in the area of child protection.

The project for which she has been awarded ERC funding addresses core social science themes relating to the government’s use of power vis-à-vis its citizens, and justifications for state interventions in people’s lives.

“I aim to examine the quality of the discretionary considerations when the child protection system removes children from their parents,” explains Professor Skivenes in a news article on the project on the UiB website.

“The general problem with the exercise of discretion is that equal cases may be treated differently,” she points out. “Services, help and protection may then depend on the specific official one meets. Resulting in injustices and wrongful decisions – and lack of predictability for the citizens. The dilemma is that discretion is highly necessary but also highly problematic.”

“The ERC grant gives me the opportunity to realise my ideas and thinking about discretionary decision-making in welfare states,” she says. “I will develop a solid interdisciplinary research programme, and I also aim to create education courses on discretion and paternalism that I believe will be highly relevant for UiB students.”

Professor Skivenes has headed several projects that have received funding under programmes at the Research Council of Norway, including the FRIPRO funding scheme for independent projects and the Research Programme on Welfare, Working Life and Migration (VAM). For an overview of these projects, see the Research Council’s Project Databank (some information in Norwegian only).

(Photo: UiO) Anders Martin Fjell

Anders Martin Fjell is a psychologist, professor and co-founder of the research group Lifespan Changes in Brain and Cognition at the University of Oslo (UiO). Professor Fjell received an ERC Starting Grant in 2011 and is now in the final phase of that project.  

Professor Fjell is researching how memories are retained in the brain (consolidation), and why memory storage declines with age. What happens to our memories as we get older? Which mechanisms in the brain are responsible for memory consolidation and whether memories fade or are remembered, and how do these function?

In a news article on the UiO website, Professor Fjell says that the ERC grant will enable him and his colleagues to “work on a long-term project to find out how memories are retained, or consolidated, in the brain.”

Professor Fjell has received funding from the Research Council several times, including under the FRIPRO funding scheme for independent projects. For an overview of these projects, see the Research Council’s Project Databank (some information in Norwegian only).

(Photo: Kjetil Lysne Voie, UiO) Lee Hsiang Liow

Lee Hsiang Liow is an associate professor at the Natural History Museum and Centre for Ecological and Evolutionary Synthesis (CEES) at UiO. She is an evolutionary biologist, and has received the ERC grant for a project that aims to bridge two main approaches in evolutionary biology research.

“Some evolutionary scientists believe that macroevolution, generating diverse species over millions of years, is simply the sum of microevolutionary processes. We believe something else might be going on, but we do not yet know exactly what it is. I hope to discover this ‘something’ over the five years with funding from the ERC,” says Dr Liow in a news article on the Titan website of UiO’s Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences.

“Some biologists argue that microevolution is all that is needed to explain everything in evolution. But many palaeontologists, and perhaps also macroevolutionary biologists, believe that microevolution and ecological interactions are not that important for the grand patterns of the formation and extinction of species. This is a topic of intense debate, and I hope that my project can bring new insights,” she continues.

“Many groups can be studied at both the ‘macro’ and the ‘micro’ level, but the somewhat obscure but incredibly beautiful bryozoans (Bryozoa) are the only group that can be studied at both levels with both living and fossil species. In addition, bryozoan fossils are often so well preserved that it is possible to study the competition among different colonies of bryozoans that lived millions of years ago. This is crucial because competition is deemed to be a very important driver in microevolution,” Dr Liow explains.

Dr Liow has also received funding under the FRIPRO funding scheme for independent projects. For information about this project, see the Research Council’s Project Databank.

Norwegian recipients of multiple ERC grants 

With his second ERC grant, Anders Martin Fjell has joined the ranks of an exclusive club of researchers in Norway. The only others to have been awarded this type of ERC research funding twice are Nobel Laureate in Medicine Edvard Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Bård Harstad of the Faculty of Social Sciences at UiO, and Kenneth Hugdahl of the Faculty of Psychology at UiB. Professors Moser and Hugdahl have each received two Advanced Grants, which are awarded to the most experienced researchers. 

Eiliv Lund of UiT The Arctic University of Norway has received one Advanced Grant and one Proof of Concept Grant, which is only awarded to researchers with ERC projects. Professor Lund is the only Norwegian researcher to win a Proof of Concept Grant to commercialise his ERC project. 

Research Council support to researchers who nearly made the grade

A total of 12 Norwegian applicants advanced to stage two of the submission process for a Consolidator Grant in 2016. Applicants who have come that far but did not receive funding may apply for financial support from the Research Council of up to NOK 500 000 to improve the basis for a new grant proposal to be submitted to the ERC in response to the first or second funding announcement for the relevant grant type.  

Many of the funded project proposals were submitted to the ERC twice or even three times before winning a grant.

The application deadline for the ERC Consolidator Grant 2017 is coming up soon, on 9 February 2016, 17:00.

FRIPRO applicants with top marks should seek ERC funding

“We would like to encourage a greater number of talented Norwegian researchers to apply for ERC grants,” says Per Ivar Høvring of the Research Council.

“Researchers who have sought funding under the Research Council’s FRIPRO scheme are a particularly promising group in this respect. If you are a researcher whose FRIPRO application has received top marks, you should consider reworking your application and submitting it to the ERC,” states Mr Høvring.

Written by:
Brita Skuland. Translation: Victoria Coleman/Carol B. Eckmann.
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