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Zukunftskollegs

For the second time, the Austrian Science Fund FWF has approved research projects totalling EUR 8.6 million for innovative and interdisciplinary cooperation between excellent postdoc teams.

In April 2020, the Board of the Austrian Science Fund FWF gave a green light to four Young Independent Researcher Groups (Zukunftskollegs in German) at Austrian research institutions. Interdisciplinarity, an innovative research approach and networking between internationally outstanding young researchers feature at the forefront of this research funding programme, which was developed jointly between the FWF and the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW).

Keen interest, high proportion of women

Of the 22 project proposals reviewed – for a total application amount of EUR 44.1 million – 44 percent pertained to the field of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities, 17 percent to biology and medicine and 39 percent to the natural and technical sciences. It is gratifying to note the high participation of female scientists at just a shade below 49 percent. There is also gender balance in the coordinators of the four groups selected, two of them being women and two men.  

Joint research for tomorrow

Acoustics research and neurology, designed to provide a better understanding of the functions of hearing, or the combination of findings from political science, sociology and geography in order to elucidate issues in the global agricultural and food system are just two examples of the innovative approaches the approved projects will pursue over the next four years. “The Young Independent Researcher Group funding programme enables young experts from different disciplines to co-operate closely,” explains FWF President Klement Tockner. “Teamwork is particularly conducive to scientific innovation and at the same time prepares the ground for solutions to central social challenges, such as those currently arising from the corona pandemic,” says Tockner.

Selection criteria and jury

The four teams were selected on the basis of international expert opinions with a focus on scientific originality and innovation, cross-boundary cooperation and diversity in terms of team composition. In addition, this year’s procedure was expanded to include presentations and subsequent detailed discussions with the international jury. On 30 and 31 March, this encounter was held online for the first time due to the corona situation. 

“The Young Independent Researcher Groups are doing an admirable job of fulfilling the goal of promoting interdisciplinary research cooperation between postdocs in Austria,” emphasizes jury chair Gabriele Bammer, an Austrian expert in transdisciplinary research who holds a position at the Australian National University (ANU) in the field of integration and implementation sciences. “All shortlisted proposals were marked by their interdisciplinary approach, including some particularly innovative proposals for cooperation and mutual learning. This also provides a solid foundation for the applicants' future careers,” Bammer is gratified to note.

Funding programme in support of young talents

The Young Independent Researcher Groups are open to (postdoc) researchers with an academic age between one and five years after their doctorate. In small, dynamic teams, the early-career researchers work together across the boundaries of their disciplines on a complex and innovative topic. The Young Independent Researcher Groups are funded for a maximum of four years with an average of EUR 1.9 million per team from the National Foundation for Research, Technology and Development (NFTE) and FWF funds. The programme was developed by the FWF together with the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

The third call for proposals for Young Independent Researcher Groups has been running since 23 March 2020. The deadline for the current call is 30 July 2020. More details on the programme and application procedures can be found at  https://www.fwf.ac.at/en/research-funding/fwf-programmes/young-independent-researcher-groups/



The four Young Independent Researcher Groups at a glance

(in alphabetical order of coordinators' names)

Dynamates: Dynamic auditory prediction in human and non-human primates

Coordination: Robert Baumgartner, Austrian Academy of Sciences
Partners: Ulrich Pomper, Michelle Spierings, University of Vienna

In dense traffic, amidst pedestrians, cyclists and cars, all moving in different directions, it is vital to know exactly where and when events are taking place around us. In order to respond to external stimuli, the human brain, as well as that of other primates, constantly produces predictions about future events, such as where an approaching car will be at the time when we want to cross the road. The group seeks to generate vital knowledge about auditory perception by testing the prediction mechanisms of closely related species in realistic but highly controllable virtual acoustic environments and mapping them in computer models. Dynamates will thus carry out the first systematic comparison of dynamic prediction and decision-making processes involved in auditory perception as between humans and non-human primates.

A research platform for the pre-clinical development of future peptide drug candidates
Coordination: Roland Hellinger, Medical University of Vienna
Partners: Dagmar Gotthardt, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Tim Hendrikx, Medical University Vienna, Kirtikumar Bhaskarrao Jadhav, Eva-Maria Plessl, University of Vienna

In modern drug development, the potential of peptide compounds (amino acid compounds) is increasingly being recognized as a promising point of departure for the development of innovative therapies. However, a single laboratory or researcher is unable to pursue a promising peptide through all phases of multidisciplinary drug development. As a result, many of these promising peptide-based drugs never reach the stage of being administered to patients. The goal of this collaborative project is to establish an interdisciplinary research platform that encompasses the entire spectrum of disciplines involved in drug development in order to prepare peptides that have been successfully tested in preclinical studies for the decisive stage of clinical application.

Interplay between biological nitrification inhibitors, nitrogen cycling and agronomic nitrogen use efficiency
Coordination: Petra Pjevac, University of Vienna
Partners: Christoph Büschl, University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences Vienna; Lucia Fuchslueger, Andrew T. Giguere, Christopher Sedlacek, University of Vienna

Soil-dwelling micro-organisms compete with crops for any added nitrogen, and some groups of micro-organisms (nitrifiers and denitrifiers) convert it into forms of nitrogen such as nitrous oxide or nitrate, which easily wash out of the soil and are therefore no longer available to plants. Current methods to inhibit nitrification in soil include the use of synthetic nitrification inhibitors (SNI), which are applied to agricultural land together with fertilizers. The group will undertake a detailed investigation of plant-produced biological nitrification inhibitors (BNI) using approaches from different life science areas. The researchers assume that by inhibiting or reducing the nitrification of bioavailable nitrogen in the soil, the nitrogen efficiency of plants is increased, thus reducing nitrogen loss in agricultural soils. The aim is to understand in detail the mechanistic mode of action of BNI and the impact of this plant-microbe interaction on the nitrogen cycle.

Exploring values-based modes of production & consumption in the corporate food regime
Coordination: Christina Plank, University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences, Vienna
Partners: Robert Hafner, Rike Stotten, University of Innsbruck

At present, the agricultural and food system is dominated by transnational corporations operating according to the principles of competition, economic growth and profit maximization. A variety of social movements and producers challenge this food regime centred on the World Trade Organization (WTO). This research project will examine small and medium-sized initiatives to determine the extent to which these bottom-up initiatives have the potential to change the WTO-centred food regime (i.e. the dominant globalized value chains in food production). The group’s objective is to analyse how these initiatives and their mode of operation change corporate power and state structures in the WTO-centred food regime. The researchers will combine findings from political science, sociology and geography.

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