Award for fundamental research2021
Ammodo Science Award
Fundamental scientific research is essential for extending the limits of our knowledge. The Ammodo Science Award therefore stimulates specifically fundamental science. The Award covers all scientific disciplines, divided into four fields: Biomedical Sciences, Humanities, Natural Sciences and Social Sciences.
Nomination & selection
The Ammodo Science Award for fundamental research consists of eight sums of money, each of 300.000 euros. The advisory committee selected for each scientific domain puts forward two candidates for the Award chosen by them out of all the nominations received within that domain. The next nomination round for the fifth edition of the Ammodo Science Award will start in the spring of 2022.
The Ammodo Science Award is for outstanding, internationally recognised mid-career scientists working in the Netherlands who were awarded their PhD no more than fifteen years ago. In 2015 the first eight laureates received the inaugural Awards.
Building a social society
“They who have youth, have the future”, is a well-known Dutch saying. The fact that this statement is now more relevant than ever is seen in the crucial challenges facing the next generation: from climate change to an increasingly diverse society in which opinions are often extremely divided. An important issue for the future is how to promote and maintain social cohesion in a society where individualism and discrimination seem to be increasingly relentlessly? In other words: how do we ensure an inclusive society in which people take account of the needs and the beliefs of others?
One thing is clear: we need to understand how people interact with each other and above all what motivates them to make choices in their social interactions that are positive for themselves and others as well as for future generations and the natural world. This is what the nine-member team Social Educational Neuroscience Amsterdam (SENSA) at the VU University in Amsterdam is working on. It is investigating what happens in the brains of children and adolescents during all sorts of often subconscious, social interactions, the assumption being that the sooner you understand what is going on in the young, still developing brains, the greater the chance that you, their teacher or parent, can influence them in a positive way.
The sooner you understand what is going on in the young, still developing brains, the greater the chance that you can influence them in a positive way.
One of the ground breaking achievements of the SENSA team’s research came from its experiments into social mindfulness, using a method which it developed to capture just such subtle, subconscious reactions. This method is now used by social scientists worldwide when conducting their own similar research. It works as follows: imagine you are with a friend in a café and are about to order. There are only three slices of cake left to choose from: two pieces of apple cake and one of carrot cake. If you are the first to choose, what do you order? The apple cake, so that your friend still has a choice, or do you not take that into account and choose the carrot cake for yourself? The SENSA team discovered that leaving the other person the choice, or effectively taking it away from them, reveals a lot about how people feel towards each other and how this affects the whole nature of their relationship. People can be more or less ‘socially mindful’, depending on their personality, experiences, or situation. Supporters of rival, hostile, football teams, for example, make considerably fewer ‘social’ choices when taking part in this experiment.
The SENSA team sees all sorts of possibilities for new variations of this experiment, allowing them to understand better how these processes work for different people in different situations, both at the level of behaviour and in the brain. For example, a study is currently taking place using the brain scan whilst observing two test subjects who have markedly different political views. Follow up studies are focussing on how the experiment can be modified to make it suitable for work with children. The ultimate goal of such research is that one day it will be possible to intervene at the optimal moment in a person’s development so that from an early age and almost automatically, children approach everyone, from friends to outsiders, in a positive way.
Even at pre-school age, children make a distinction as to whom they help and in what way based on the other child’s origin.
The results so far have been remarkable because the research team is increasingly able to capture and make sense of these very subtle forms of behaviour, which can have major consequences in all sorts of social situations. A specific and very relevant example is in the school classroom, where the sorts of mechanisms being studied play a role, for example, in determining why some pupils in a group become isolated or discriminated against and why others are readily accepted. In order to understand this, SENSA studies the helping behaviour of children. By doing so they have discovered, among other things, that even at pre-school age, children make a distinction as to whom they help and in what way based on the other child’s origin. For example, the team found that children from other [social/racial/religious] backgrounds were not receiving the same level of help. The reasons for this and what the consequences of the different ways of helping are for a person’s status within a group and his or her self-image are currently being investigated further.
An additional ground breaking aspect to much of the SENSA research is that the team uses portable EEG devices to collect their research data outside the laboratory, in real life settings such as the classroom. This technology can be used there and then to show children their own brain signals, for example while working with classmates. The children actually experience that they can influence their biological processes themselves. Initial pilot studies are promising and show that this form of feedback can strengthen children’s sense of autonomy and control, which can benefit the social functioning of their brains.
The current research has led to new questions that the SENSA team wants to use the Award for. As far as social mindfulness is concerned, one of the things the team wants to find out is how ‘taking others into account’ develops over time, and at what age such a subtle process can be influenced positively. This also includes the question of what makes one child automatically take the concerns of others into account whilst another child has to make more effort to do so. The next step is to find out how to stimulate further the positive development of the social processes of the brain. Does it really make sense to give children feedback about their own brain activity via portable EEGs?
The way in which the team thinks about social impact and applications in practice, including specifically in education, is recognised internationally as innovative and groundbreaking.
Due to the unique composition of this multidisciplinary team, new breakthroughs are expected. With three senior members, three mid-career and three junior researchers, the team is considered to be optimally balanced, and the research quality of all members is of a high international standard. SENSA prioritises a broad interdisciplinary approach and successfully builds bridges between social psychology and other disciplines such as developmental psychology, educational science, social neuroscience, sociology and experimental economics. The way in which the team thinks about social impact and applications in practice, including specifically in education, is recognised internationally as innovative and groundbreaking.
In addition, all team members are developing experiments that related to the challenges faced in everyday life. They attach great importance to their research results being practically useful in real life situations. As the team itself puts it: “We share our fascination for social processes, for concepts such as trust and social mindfulness and the desire to translate these into experimental situations so that they can be investigated, and ultimately so that parents and teachers can be advised as to how best to address these in order to positively influence children. And if that succeeds then the next generation may truly be the most social yet.”
Team members, (f.l.t.r.): TuongVan Vu, Nikkie Lee, Barbara Braams, Jellie Sierksma, Tieme Janssen, Paul van Lange, Mariët van Buuren, Lydia Krabbendam, Nienke van Atteveldt.