ERC Consolidator Grant awarded to four UvA researchers

29 November 2018

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded prestigious Consolidator Grants to anthropologist Shanshan Lan, legal expert Benjamin van Rooij, computational linguist Raquel Fernández and medical biologist/data expert Colin Russell. The grants, awarded to individual researchers, are worth about 2 million euros each.

Fernández will focus on a new computational model of a dialogue agent that can learn to take part in conversation directly from data about language use. Lan will conduct research into the multiple and contradictory constructions of ‘whiteness’ in China. Van Rooij will instigate a behavioural revolution in the field of law by carrying out a critical analysis of current legal thinking with respect to behaviour. Russell will use huge databases to search for the secrets of the influenza virus.

The Consolidator Grant is meant for researchers who obtained their PhDs between 7 and 12 years ago. The grants enable researchers to consolidate their position as independent researchers.

The recipients

Dr Raquel Fernández, Institute for Logic, Language and Computation: Distributed dynamic representations for dialogue management (DREAM)

Our ability to communicate using language in conversation is considered the hallmark of human intelligence. Yet, while holding a dialogue is effortless for most of us, modelling this basic human skill by computational means has proven extremely difficult. Fernández will address this challenge by establishing a new computational model of a dialogue agent that can learn to take part in conversation directly from data about language use. Her model is grounded in linguistic theories of dialogue, but exploits recent advances in computational learning that allow the agent to learn the representations that it manipulates directly from experience. This constitutes a paradigm shift in dialogue modelling --- from predefined symbolic representations to automatic representation learning – that will break new scientific ground in (computational) linguistics, and artificial intelligence. Fernández will implement the agent as an artificial neural network system and train it with task-oriented conversations where the participants have a well-defined end goal. The agent will be able to integrate linguistic and perceptual information, leading to more human-like and effective communication. 

S Lan

Dr Shanshan Lan, Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research: The Reconfiguration of Whiteness in China - Privileges, Precariousness, and Racialised Performances (CHINAWHITE)

Shanshan Lan examines the multiple and contradictory constructions of whiteness in China as a result of the rapid diversification of white migrants in the country and the shifting power balances between China and the West. Existing literature on white westerners in Asia mainly focuses on transnational elites. The rising number of middle- and lower-stratum of white migrants in China deserves special attention due to substantial tensions and discrepancies in their experiences of racial privilege, economic insecurity, and legal vulnerability. Lan will conduct research on daily life encounters between various groups of white migrants and Chinese in five domains: (1) state policy regarding international migrants in China; (2) the ESL industry (teaching English as a second language); (3) the media, fashion, and entertainment industries; (4) transnational business and entrepreneurship; and (5) interracial romance. Three major research questions frame her project. First, what are the symbolic and material advantages and disadvantages of being white in China’s thriving market economy and consumer culture? Second, how is whiteness racialised in relation to blackness and other immigrant minority identities? And third, how are multiple versions of whiteness produced, interpreted, negotiated, and performed through daily life interactions between white migrants and Chinese? 

Prof Benjamin van Rooij, professor Law

Prof. Benjamin van Rooij, Amsterdam Research Institute for Legal Studies: Homo Juridicus: Correcting Law's Behavioural Illiteracy (HomoJuridicus)

Recent scientific research has revolutionised our understanding of how law can reduce misconduct. It shows that legal incentives are often flawed, and that strict punishment alone cannot deter misbehaviour. It offers a new approach for law to address wrongdoing, incorporating social norms and morals, tapping into unconscious cognition, and applying practical and technical interventions that obstruct misconduct. Yet, these fundamental insights continue to be ignored, and with every new disaster, scandal or major risk, we produce more rules with stronger punishment. The core problem is that the field of law has not made conduct central, nor produced a behavioural legal theory. As a result, legal rules to code conduct are made and operated by lawyers who have received little to no behavioural training. Van Rooij will empirically study whether the behavioural assumptions of these lawyers match existing scientific knowledge, and will map the biases and misconceptions in lawyerly behavioural thinking. This will culminate in a behavioural jurisprudence that corrects flawed behavioural assumptions in the field of law. With this, the project aims to stimulate a behavioural revolution in the field of law, just like behavioural economics did for traditional economic thinking. 

Prof Colin Andrew Russell, Professor Cellular and Computational Neurosience

Prof. Colin Russell, Laboratory of Applied Evolutionary Biology (AMC-UvA): Navigating the Evolutionary Routes of Influenza Viruses (NaviFlu)

Flu is a disease that occurs all over the world, and almost everyone gets it multiple times over the course of their lives. Despite lots of research attention, there are still many questions about this disease. Russell, a data expert, will put the influenza virus under the magnifying glass by searching the virus’ secrets in huge databases. His project will have a three-tiered approach: someone has the flu; that has consequences for her immediate vicinity; others can be infected. Russell will map this dynamic. This is relevant research, especially in the search for a good flu vaccine. Now a group of experts decides each year which strains of virus (there are many variants of viruses that can cause flu) will probably strike in the coming winter. Then these virus strains will be put into the flu vaccine. This does not always go well. For several years Russell was part of the committee that determines the composition of the flu vaccine. It is difficult to do and often strains are missed. It is due to the fact that there is still a lot unknown about the flu. By using smart research to look at all the data on flu, his aim is to reduce the knowledge gap. In this way, he also hopes to find out how the virus spreads and in this way allow us to better predict which strains to put into the flu vaccine.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting