Amsterdam Brain and Cognition (ABC)

Strategic Mission 2018

Amsterdam Brain & Cognition

ABC comprises a unique center for excellent research on brain and cognition, connecting life sciences to behavioral sciences and humanities. ABC aims to increase understanding of cognitive functions and their relation to brain function in humans, but also in animals and artificial systems; and to promote an interdisciplinary approach in this research. As a main ambition for 2018, ABC sets out to develop a more distinct thematic profile and a set of characteristic transversal perspectives, as outlined in some detail below.

Background

Brain & Cognition, hosted by ABC, is the largest among UvA’s Research Priority Areas (RPAs).  In 2018, UvA decides on re-accrediting its RPAs.  For Brain & Cognition, the procedure has been initiated in 2017.  In brief, things look good.  What follows is a brief resumé of the recommendations that followed from the re-accrediting process, and the mission ABC envisions to sustain and further strengthen its position in 2018 as well as to face future challenges.  

In January 2018, the Executive Board judged quite favourably about ABC’s program and plans.  ABC was commended for achieving its goals of fostering interdisciplinary research.  Some further suggestions were phrased: ABC’s internal cohesion and external visibility could stand further improvement.  The UvA Executive Board encourages ABC to 1) strengthen thematic lines, 2) collaborate and form alliances with consortia currently working in related fields in Amsterdam, and 3) seek and strengthen ABC’s own competitive advantage.  It also recommends ABC to work on turning its interdisciplinary research collaborations into more durable interdisciplinary research lines.  ABC has successfully facilitated a variety of novel smaller-scale research lines, but to enhance opportunities for entering international consortia (as ABC), it should work to improve its visibility and thematic profiling. 

To address these challenges and accomplish these goals, the ABC Board of Directors has developed a Strategic Plan 2018-2022, from which it has extracted a Mission statement for 2018, outlined below.

Over the course of ABC’s recent past, its funding schemes have spurred extensive collaborations, resulting in strong and often permanent links between UvA/AMC researchers from different disciplines (as illustrated by joint research on impulse control in healthy humans, patients, and animals; research on economic, psychological and neurological approaches to decision making; or the SMART initiative, connecting research on speech, language, music, art, reasoning and thought).

Yet, this successful approach has not yet brought the degree of internal cohesion and external ‘branding’, which all parties recognise as crucial for ABC’s future position.  Given ABC’s excellent scientific quality, ABC can and should be more manifestly positioned.  In 2018, we attempt to tackle this issue in the following manners (a.o.):

  • Inspired by broadly buttressed bottom-up initiatives (based on ABC brainstorm days and an inventory initiated by the ABC Advisory Board), and supported by the ABC Board of Directors as well as the UvA Executive Board, ABC aims to strengthen its internal cohesion and fortify its national and international position by launching distinct thematic profiles and a set of characteristic transversal perspectives.  These manifest thematic topics should be interdisciplinary in nature; broad enough to be inclusive for many of ABC’s members and divisions; yet focal enough to be coherent and distinctive.  This approach will also promote the transition from successful short-term collaborations into prominent long-term research programs. 

A small number of such broad yet focal and topical research profiles has emerged from bottom-up inventories (solicited from all members).These themes have been distilled through semi-quantitative cluster analysis (based on how well they cut across disciplines and faculties, and on how prominently they were represented in the inventory) by a taskforce on behalf of the Advisory Board; and turn out to square quite well with evaluations by the Board of Directors:

  • DIR: Decision-Making, Impulse Control & Rationality (by far the largest theme, including the keywords Emotion, Reasoning, Economic, Social, Motivation, Action, Control, Executive Function, Addiction)
  • PML: Plasticity, Memory & Language (including Learning)
  • PAC: Perception, Attention & Consciousness

In addition to these thematic profiles, a number of prominent transversal perspectives was identified that do not cluster into clear content-wise themes yet are prominently represented and cut across disciplines:

  • from molecule to mind to medicine;
  • (neuro)computational modeling;
  • individual differences within and between populations;
  • comparative & evolutionary perspectives.

These themes and perspectives will be developed further by the Advisory Board, and may be subject to further framing and phrasing.  Funding within ABC (e.g., Project grants) may be geared to promote the distinction of these profiles.

Finally, some themes are so broad that they cut across the main clusters (e.g., SMART, the Future of Aging, Complexity, …), and may be strategically endorsed in order to connect to, for instance, urgent societal demands or hot scientific trends. 

  • ABC members have been successful in obtaining ERCs, prestigious NWO grants, and other external grants.  They are also involved in (proposals for) larger-scale grant schemes (e.g., NeuroLab.nl (implementing the Nationale Wetenschaps Agenda), the Human Brain Project, and the NWO-Gravity program).  These efforts typically reflect the involvement of individual ABC researchers, rather than of interdisciplinary teams on behalf of ABC.  Obviously, ABC supports and promotes these activities; for the coming years, however, we intend to also stimulate ABC researchers to submit proposals as interdisciplinary ABC teams, for instance for H2020 or NWA.
    • The Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) and ABC have agreed that ABC will offer fellowship positions at the IAS with a duration of 3 months fulltime (80-100% of the researchers’ time) or 6 months part-time (≥40% of the researchers’ time).  ABC uses funds to compensate the home faculty/ department for the time that the fellow spends at the IAS (similar to the support offered for sabbatical leaves).  This fellowship position is centered on one of ABC’s profile themes, as studied from different disciplines, and entails the visit of various international fellows as well.  We believe that such fellowship positions may support the preparation of larger and more prestigious research grants.  
  • We have started a discussion on strategic alliances with other research centers in the Amsterdam area, entailing a virtual network to facilitate closer cooperation with Amsterdam Neuroscience (AN), the Institute of Brain and Behavioral Sciences Amsterdam (IBBA-VU), and the Netherlands Institute of Neuroscience (NIN-KNAW).  All parties have already committed to forming a network organization with ABC, which will be further discussed with the respective boards of the VU and UvA.  More news soon!

Summary

In sum, the most important ingredients of ABC’s mission for 2018 are:

  • Enhanced focus in thematic research profiles
  • Collaboration with IAS to promote development of ABC proposals for large-scale grants
  • Foundation of a new Amsterdam alliance network of brain and cognitive sciences.

 

Richard Ridderinkhof, Chair of the Board of Directors

Published by  Amsterdam Brain and Cognition (ABC)

29 March 2018