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Millions worth of grants for three Groningen top researchers

NWO awards prestigious VICI grants
05 February 2013

Three prominent academics from the University of Groningen have been awarded EUR 1.5 million each, to be spent on five years of research and the establishment of their own research groups. They have been awarded VICI grants as part of NWO’s Innovational Research Incentives Scheme (‘Vernieuwingsimpuls’).

NWO awards VICI grants on the basis of the researchers’ quality, the innovative nature and academic impact of their research proposal and application of knowledge. The VICI grants are intended for ‘excellent, experienced researchers who have successfully developed a new research line and thus established themselves prominently at both national and international levels’, says NWO.

This year there were over 200 applicants for a VICI grant, 128 of whom were invited to further elaborate their proposal. A total of 32 academics have eventually been awarded VICI grants.

VICI laureates in Groningen

Prof. Herman de Jong (Economics and Business)

The prosperity paradox: crisis in the 1930s, yet more wellbeing?

‘Economic history is a field from which we can learn many lessons’, De Jong states. ‘Why was there such a clear improvement in wellbeing in the 1930s, for example, despite the economy doing so badly? It turns out to be a complicated interplay of factors, and we want to untangle cause and effect.’

Economic prosperity and human welfare may seem to be two sides of the same coin, but in fact they do not always develop at the same pace. The project will analyse the European prosperity paradox of the period between 1913 and 1950, a time when the economy stagnated but the quality of life quickly improved.

Despite world wars, ethnic cleansing, the holocaust and emigration, the European population increased by 100 million inhabitants in the first half of the twentieth century. During that period, the birth and death rates dropped, child mortality declined and life expectancy increased. Infectious diseases like TB struck less often, the average height rose, the working week was shortened and leisure time increased. ‘Strangely enough, these improvements in welfare cannot be traced in the official figures that measure economic growth’, according to De Jong.

Prof. Tineke Oldehinkel (UMCG)

Regaining lost sense of pleasure

‘Having fun is a great good, particularly among young people’, says Oldehinkel. ‘Not being able to enjoy things is a real tragedy – it makes you feel lonely and isolated.’

Oldehinkel aims to investigate how the inability to experience pleasure develops, how it is expressed and how a lost sense of enjoyment can be regained. First, Oldehinkel will study which factors evoke loss of enjoyment in young people. She will be doing this on the basis of the TRAILS study, which has been following a large group of young people for over ten years. Subsequently, the project will focus on the various manifestations of loss of enjoyment and the question what can be done to regain the lost sense of enjoyment. Oldehinkel: ‘I will focus on personal lifestyle recommendations. It is very difficult to stimulate people who suffer from loss of enjoyment to make changes in their life which could improve their wellbeing. They are trapped in a vicious circle.’

One thing that may help break this vicious circle is an intense experience – Oldehinkel suggests bungee jumping. ‘Bungee jumping gives you a “boost” in many senses of the word, and may be a starting point for change.’ However, the bungee jumping component has turned out to be a rather controversial aspect of the research proposal. ‘I understand that’, Oldehinkel says. ‘And of course I have no idea yet whether it will really result in more enjoyment. That’s what I want to find out – and there are several good reasons to expect that it may be true.’

Prof. Sijbren Otto, Faculty of Science and Engineering (formerly known as the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences)

Darwinian evolution of molecules

All living creatures are subject to Darwinian evolution. This has made chemist Sijbren Otto wonder: ‘Can we make chemical molecules evolve in a similar way?’ His research group aims to answer this question by developing molecules that can replicate themselves under circumstances in which mutations and selection occur.

Chemistry has thus far focused mainly on the development of stable systems – now it's time to start looking into the more unstable ones. Biological systems develop through a system of evolution and decay, synthesis and degradation, a cycle of life and death. Sijbren Otto aims to study whether these biological principles can also be applied to synthetic chemistry. Self-assembling and self-replicating macromolecules play an important role here. Artificial chemical systems made up of such molecules may also be able to undergo Darwinian evolution. This may be a first step towards synthetic life, Otto hopes.
Last modified:09 July 2020 3.22 p.m.
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