ERC grants for Flemish research, from movies to medical ethics


Fourteen researchers in Flemish universities have been awarded prestigious European Research Council grants in a variety of disciplines

Up to €1.5 million

Fourteen researchers in Flemish universities can get started on valuable research across many social and scientific disciplines thanks to the European Research Council’s prestigious starting grants.

Every year, the ERC, established by the European Commission, distributes hundreds of millions in funding to research projects which, it says, “allows researchers to identify new opportunities and directions in any field of research, rather than being led by priorities set by politicians”.

Grants of up to €1.5 million are awarded for a five-year period. In Flanders, Ghent University researchers received the most ERC grants this year, with six. Four recipients are conducting research at KU Leuven and four at VUB in Brussels.

Research projects are extremely diverse, with topics this year including negative experiences on the brain, medical ethics in a digital world and the role of cinema in the history of border conflicts.

Your brain reacts to the same stimulus in a different way, and you change your behaviour

- Dr Isabel Beets

“Our project is about how our brain and behaviour change after an unpleasant or aversive experience,” said Isabel Beets of KU Leuven (pictured above), who is leading a neurobiology team on biological responses to negative encounters. “One example of an experience we call aversive is feeling ill after you’ve eaten something. The next time you see or smell that same dish, you probably won’t eat it, or you’ll even start to feel nauseous. So your brain reacts to the same stimulus in a different way, and you change your behaviour.”

At Ghent University, ethics professor Heidi Mertes will head research into the effects of digital solutions to health care. “Several innovations in health care have exchanged specialised and qualitative medical care for more accessible or cheaper care,” said the university in a statement. “Examples include the much-discussed corona apps, but also doctor Google, direct-to-consumer genetic testing, a smartwatch giving medical advice or a decision support system giving your physician medical advice.”

A scene from the 2002 movie Puckoon, which sees a town split in two – literally – during the partition of Ireland

Given that medical ethics are tailored to traditional medicine, Mertes questions whether the discipline of medical ethics is sufficiently equipped to safeguard patients from potential risks, “not only in terms of health but in areas such as patient autonomy, duty of care and confidentiality.”

Kevin Smets at VUB, meanwhile, has received one of the first ERC grants ever for research focused on film. “The team will study the articulation of borders and border conflicts in fiction films released during the last 120 years,” said VUB in a statement. “They will concentrate on three historically complex border regions: Northern Ireland, Morocco-Spain and Syria-Turkey.”

Smets and his team in the communication studies department will also conduct a large-scale film project with people living in these border regions. A film festival and exhibition about the project will follow in collaboration with Belgium’s royal film archive, Cinematek.

Photos, from top: Courtesy KU Leuven, courtesy Fandor