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Press Release No. 26 | 6 July 2021
DFG to Fund 13 New Research Units

Topics range from DNA viruses and learning in visual computing to issues relating to migration due to labour, education and displacement / A total of some €47.4 million for the first funding period

The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) is establishing 13 new Research Units. This was decided by the DFG Joint Committee at the virtual DFG Annual General Meeting on 6 July 2021 on the recommendation of the Senate. The new Research Units will receive total funding of approximately €47.4 million, including a 22-percent programme allowance for indirect project-related costs. The Research Units include three that are to be funded under the lead agency agreement with the Austrian Fund for Scientific Research (FWF) and the Luxembourg Fonds National de la Recherche (FNR).

The funding duration for these consortia is based on the date on which the first draft of a funding proposal was submitted. Research Units which submitted their draft proposals after 1 October 2018 will be funded for a maximum of two four-year periods; this applies to nine of the newly established Research Units. Four consortia are based on a draft proposal received prior to 1 October 2018; these will be funded for two periods of three years each.

In addition to the 13 institutions, it was decided to extend funding for nine Research Units for a second period, again including two that are funded under the lead agency agreement with the Luxembourg FNR.

Research Units enable researchers to devote themselves to current, pressing issues in their subject areas and establish innovative new fields of research. With these new additions, the DFG is currently funding 173 Research Units, 14 Clinical Research Units and 13 Centres for Advanced Studies. Clinical Research Units are additionally characterised by their close link between research and clinical work, while Centres for Advanced Studies are specifically tailored to work in the humanities and social sciences.

The 13 new consortia in detail
(in alphabetical order of the spokespersons’ HEIs)

Lower back pain (LBP) is one of the most widespread musculoskeletal disorders, and elucidation of the underlying mechanisms is of great medical and socio-economic relevance. The interdisciplinary Research Unit “The Dynamics of the Spine: Mechanics, Morphology and Motion towards a Comprehensive Diagnosis of Low Back Pain” aims to gain fundamentally new insights in this area, with implications for diagnosis and therapy. The consortium brings together researchers from the fields of biomechanics, orthopaedics, trauma surgery, sport science, kinesiology, anaesthesiology and psychology. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Hendrik Schmidt, Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin)

What strategies do DNA viruses use in the course of a new infection to manipulate, circumvent or exploit cellular gene expression for their own purposes? This is the topic of the Research Unit “Disrupt – Evade – Exploit: Gene Expression and Host Response Programming in DNA Virus Infection (DEEP-DV)”. With a particular focus on the specific nuclear environment and the state of the host cell, the aim here is to gain a better understanding of the control mechanisms that apply in acute and chronic DNA virus infections, thereby contributing to the development of new therapeutic strategies in the long term. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Melanie Brinkmann, TU Braunschweig)

The history of psychiatry is a history of the antithesis between “normal” and “mad”. Yet this concept becomes fragile if we consider the opening of psychiatric institutions, for instance, and the integration of inmates in society: here, “mad” behaviour can tend to appear normal, while phenomena such as intoxication, stress and attention deficit are pathologised. In this way, established narratives of psychiatric historiography lose their interpretative usefulness. The Research Unit “NORMAL#MAD. Contemporary History of an Eroding Difference” takes this as its starting point so as to be able to draw on these tendencies as a resource for contemporary history. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Heiner Fangerau, University of Düsseldorf)

Social change is not without consequences in terms of the social and political orientations of individuals. Increasing political alienation and polarisation as well as new lines of social conflict challenge existing systems of resource allocation. Based on a deliberately multidimensional approach to social structure, the Research Unit “Reconfiguration and Internalization of Social Structure (RISS)” aims to undertake an in-depth investigation of this complexity using a combination of social structure analysis and political sociology. The aim is to develop a theory to explain the socio-structural shaping of individual and collective orientations. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Daniela Grunow, University of Frankfurt/Main)

The statistical evaluation of huge amounts of data is becoming increasingly important. However, the methods and work stages used for this purpose are not always ideally coordinated or compatible with external factors (distributed/limited storage space, limited computing power, data protection, etc.). The Research Unit “Mathematical Statistics in the Information Age - Statistical Efficiency and Computational Tractability”, jointly funded with the Austrian Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research, aims to address this challenge with regard to pre-processed data and the statistical models underlying the analyses. For this purpose, underlying mathematical principles and their algorithmic formulation have to be entirely newly developed in many cases. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Angelika Rohde, University of Freiburg)

The use of treated wastewater for irrigation in agriculture serves to conserve resources, but it also entails risks. For example, pollutants can be activated that are stored in the soil as a result of previous irrigation with untreated wastewater. There is no basis for assessing the extent and relevance of these risks, however. This is where the Research Unit “Pollutant – Antibiotic Resistance – Pathogen Interactions in a Changing Wastewater Irrigation System” comes in. The interactions between the response of different pollutants and bacteria are analysed, too, with a particular focus on the largely unknown connection between the mobility of antibiotics and horizontal gene transfer in soil. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Jan Siemens, University of Gießen)

The permanent change in our environment requires a high degree of flexible behaviour and ever new strategies of adaptation, for which the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of our brain is responsible. The degradation of these abilities lies at the core of many diseases. The interdisciplinary Research Unit “Resolving the Prefrontal Circuits of Cognitive Flexibility”, jointly funded with the Austrian Fund for the Promotion of Scientific Research, aims to identify neuronal mechanisms that determine flexible behaviour across species and life spans so as to discover the connection between faulty circuitry and disease-relevant criteria. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Ileana L. Hanganu-Opatz, University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf)

Neurons are highly polarised cells that communicate via synapses, to whose structure and function a large number of proteins contribute. This results in a high degree of dynamism at the synapses, the scene of neurotransmission: specialised processes of protein exchange and renewal are required. How this is regulated locally at the presynapse and how the networked process – proteostasis – functions in this context is a central question of cell biology that has so far only been answered in fragments. The Research Unit “Membrane Trafficking Processes Underlying Presynaptic Proteostasis” is now looking for answers. (Spokesperson: Dr. Michael R. Kreutz, Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology, Magdeburg)

The use of machine learning methods has revolutionised the field of visual computing. Despite all the progress, the use of artificial neural networks in practical applications remains a challenge because learning with real data is costly and complicated. This is where the Research Unit “Learning and Simulation in Visual Computing” comes in: it is dedicated to the development of new simulation and learning techniques. The overall aim is to gain a better understanding of the relationship between simulated and real training data and understand which features have the greatest influence on the effectiveness of the learning process. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr.-Ing. Matthias Niessner Ph.D., TU Munich)

The Research Unit “Military Cultures of Violence – Illegitimate Military Violence from the Early Modern Period to the Present” aims to close an important desideratum in both military historiography and violence research: in what way and to what extent did specific military cultures of violence develop in the armies of the major European powers from the early modern period through to contemporary history? The focus of research here is on physical violence that is perceived in the contemporary context as illegitimate, both in times of war and in times of peace, which is why the question of the changing standards of legitimacy and illegitimacy of violence is posed. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Sönke Neitzel, University of Potsdam)

Socio-political debate indicates that phenomena such as migration due to labour, education and displacement are regarded as institutional challenges while, conversely, institutions are seen as potential hurdles to such processes. The Research Unit “Transborder Mobilities and Institutional Dynamics” examines both of these interdependent aspects from the perspective of sociology, ethnology and political science. The focus is on the question of when institutions mobilise or immobilise and how migration changes institutions. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Karin Schittenhelm, University of Siegen)

Texts with a normative and identity-forming character circulate within societies. They are often linked to practices of a religious or of a political, legal or literary nature and in this context they become charged with meaning (“sacralised”). But they can also lose this status again in the course of historical change processes. The Research Unit “De/Sacralization of Texts” sets out to trace this initial thesis. The common underlying element here is the analysis of the opposing dynamics of sacralisation and desacralisation in differing social, cultural and religious contexts. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Birgit Weyel, University of Tübingen)

So-called jets from Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) are able to transport some of the potential en-ergy released when matter accumulates on a supermassive black hole. But what are the jets made of? How are they launched from the environment of very massive black holes? What processes are responsible for their high-energy radiation – and what interactions are there with the parent galaxy? The Research Unit “Relativistic Jets in Active Galaxies” looks for answers to these questions based on theory, modelling, observation and interpretation. (Spokesperson: Professor Dr. Matthias Kadler, University of Würzburg)

The nine consortia extended for a second funding period
(in alphabetical order of the spokespersons’ HEIs and with references to the project descriptions in GEPRIS – the DFG internet database for current funding):

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