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NOMIS Research Projects

NOMIS research grants support unconventional research projects led by researchers who have demonstrated exceptional scientific capabilities and leadership. The grants enable scientists to spearhead pioneering research to answer bold questions and advance yet unexplored approaches across scientific and academic disciplines. We award research grants to investigators with an excellent track record in leading groundbreaking, high-risk basic research.

Groups of people often encounter difficulties when working together. In many situations, people prioritize their self-interest, which can undermine efforts to benefit the group as a whole, as seen in problems like traffic congestion, public-health failures and climate change. Even when individuals want to act for others, they may struggle to find the best course of action when confronted with social dilemmas where the interests of the individual and the group are not aligned.

The Addressing Collective Action Problems With Machine Intelligence project aims to explore how machine intelligence can help address these challenges in human collective action. While people currently use AI mainly for individual convenience and self-interest, collective-action theory suggests that machine intelligence optimized for public goods may require a different design concept than those intended for individual goods. The project seeks to identify the differences and clarify how social interactions and technology can work together to foster the emergence of social order. It focuses on how this process relates to collective action and the resolution of social dilemmas.

The Addressing Collective Action Problems project will develop and conduct controlled experiments in which many human participants interact with each other with and without the support of machine intelligence in specific social contexts, such as online messaging and driving coordination. The experimental findings will be verified through empirical studies on real-world AI applications. Ultimately, the project aims to demonstrate how machine intelligence can be used as a tool for social interventions that translate knowledge of computer science and AI into helpful practices for public goods.

The project is being led by Hirokazu Shirado at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, US).

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2028

What makes our species unique? The answer to this fundamental question must ultimately lie in our genome, and specifically in genetic changes found only in present-day humans and differing from the genome sequences of Neandertals and Denisovans, the closest evolutionary relatives of present-day humans. Genome comparisons have revealed some 35,000 such sequence changes, but the far greater challenge is to identify which of these genetic differences had truly functional consequences. The project A Molecular View of Human Uniqueness aims to answer this key question.

Using information from Neandertal DNA fragments carried by present-day people, the research team will perform functional analysis of the differences that are likely to have affected metabolism and brain function in modern humans as well as the changes that are specific to Neandertals and Denisovans. This work will contribute to our understanding of the biological functions that distinguish modern humans from their closest evolutionary relatives.

The Molecular View of Human Uniqueness research project is being led by Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in collaboration with the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Okinawa, Japan.

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2028

Are people a threat to nature, or are they part of nature? Are the natural environment and its objects valuable primarily because they are essential for human survival, or are they valuable in and of themselves? These questions have occupied environmental ethicists for decades, but they also are relevant in a practical context: To develop visions for a sustainable future in Western societies.

The Beyond Intrinsic and Instrumental project combines environmental philosophy with methods from the social sciences to connect ethical arguments for nature’s consideration with the actual human–nature interactions that shape people’s lives. The empirical (social science) aspect of the project aims to achieve a better understanding of what “nature” means to members of different social and professional groups in industrialized countries. What do they value in nature? How and why do they value it? And what norms do they themselves follow in their interactions with nature? In a previous project, the researchers analyzed the values and nature concepts of mountain farmers and identified meaningful interactions with domesticated and wild animals as well as landscapes. The Beyond Intrinsic project focuses on bird watchers as a group with a different—leisure-based—relationship to nature.

As part of the philosophical branch of the project, the team will develop relational arguments for the protection of nature. The reasoning is based on the assumption that respect for nature can take different forms, ranging from the human withdrawal from ecosystems to considerate interaction with natural processes to support for threatened nature and restoration of destroyed nature. Interviews with mountain farmers and bird watchers as groups that have close relations with nature provide examples for how people can and do interact with nature. These data serve as a starting point for the more general philosophical discussion. The researchers are using the concept of relational value as the value that people assign to natural objects in particular human–nature relationships to connect their empirical work with their philosophical arguments. Ultimately, the project will generate proposals regarding what can and should be a sustainable place for humans in nature in Western societies of the Anthropocene.

Anna Deplazes Zemp is leading the Beyond Intrinsic and Instrumental project at the University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The project is also being supported by the University Research Priority Programme on Global Change and Biodiversity and the UZH Foundation.

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2028

Aging is the main risk factor for diseases, including neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases. In many cases, the effect of aging on different organs is synchronized. Interestingly, aging can be slowed or even reversed by specific interventions, including diet. There also exist suspended animation states—for example, hibernation or diapause—that synchronously pause organ deterioration. But the mechanisms that synchronize organs during aging are unknown. The Organ Synchronization in Aging and Suspended Animation project aims to discover how organs in the body are synchronized during aging.

One of the greatest challenges in studying aging is the long lifespan and expensive nature of traditional experimental model organisms. The Brunet lab has thus developed a powerful platform of genome editing tools in a new model for aging research, the African killifish, a vertebrate with a naturally compressed lifespan of only four to six months. Importantly, the killifish recapitulates typical age-dependent phenotypes and pathologies, notably neurodegeneration with age. The killifish also has a suspended animation state in embryos called diapause, which preserves fully formed organs for long periods of time.

The scalable platform developed by the Brunet lab will be used in killifish to understand the mechanisms underlying synchronization between different organs and how this is affected during aging and suspended animation. The Brunet lab is particularly interested in the role of the specific organs (for example, the brain) as “control centers” for other organs. This knowledge could be game changing for the discovery of key organ–organ communication systems.

Combining the new model organism, unbiased genomics approaches and the power of artificial intelligence, the research project is an innovative investigation into aging and suspended animation. This research has important implications for preserving tissues for long periods of time and countering age-related diseases.

The Organ Synchronization in Aging and Suspended Animation project is being led by Anne Brunet at Stanford University (US).

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2028

Despite widespread popular and academic concern that artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics are ushering in a jobless future, the industrialized world is currently awash in jobs. The challenge that workers face is not job quantity but rather job quality. Middle-skilled workers without college degrees are increasingly relegated into low-paid, in-person service work that offers little opportunity for developing skills or increasing income—even as highly paid, highly skilled specialties comprise a growing proportion of all work. Recent AI breakthroughs may intensify or, more plausibly, reshape these secular forces, creating an urgent need to understand the relationship between technology and expertise.

The project Will New Technologies Complement or Commodify Expertise? seeks to understand how emerging innovations—especially AI—could change the demand for labor by increasing the value of expertise (for example, by creating new types of skilled work or extending the reach of existing expertise) or reducing the value of skills (and undermining pay) even if jobs are not actually lost. It is exploring these impacts both for workers who use these technologies and for the labor market as a whole, inclusive of those indirectly affected. Using historical and current data, as well as field experiments in collaboration with the developer of a large language model (LLM) and a large online skills marketplace, the researchers are pursuing four main questions:

1) By how much have automation innovations (substituting for workers’ inputs) accelerated relative to augmentation innovations (complementing workers’ outputs), and for which skill groups?

2) Is this acceleration explained primarily by technological fundamentals, by incentives or by both? Can those incentives be shaped to speed augmentation as well as automation?

3) How do the productivity and employment impacts of augmentation innovations and automation innovations differ?

4) How will generative AI affect the value of expertise at scale?

The project will harness and, in some cases, develop disparate data sources, including representative US Census Bureau data as well as newly digitized historical data and industry-level productivity data. It will also launch an ambitious field experiment studying the use of generative AI for work tasks, performed in conjunction with both an online skills marketplace and the developer of a large language model. This research will inform efforts to shape technology to complement rather than undermine the value of labor, potentially helping to buttress the quality—not simply the quantity—of available jobs.

The Expertise project is being led by David Autor at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) in Cambridge, US.

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2028

For the first nine months of our lives, we had an essential, physical connection to our mothers. We were free-floating for the first eight days, and then we implanted in the uterus. This was a very difficult transition: Failure to implant accounts for up to 60% of pregnancy losses. Yet, little is known about this stage of development because, by its very nature, the embryo is inaccessible to observation during this time. Illuminating the journey from a fertilized single cell to a complex structure with multiple cell types is essential to understanding the beginning of life and discovering how this journey sets the stage for proper development. It will lead to potential clinical interventions for many diseases, from developmental disorders to infertility.

The project Opening the Black Box of Human Implantation will build upon two previous breakthroughs made by the project’s researchers: culturing natural mammalian embryos through implantation stages in a dish and generating synthetic mouse embryos from embryonic and extra-embryonic stem cells. The researchers will explore how the first cell fate decisions are made in natural human embryos by determining how the genome and transcriptome change from pre- to post-implantation in culture. This will enable them to build the first synthetic human implantation embryo model from stem cells. Using this model, they can study how the body plan is determined, employing approaches that are impossible at these stages with natural human embryos, such as CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. The researchers will also generate endometrial organoids to recreate the lining of the uterus and build a new maternal implantation niche in vitro. Together, these systems will make possible the investigation of crucial but unknown crosstalk at the maternal–fetal interface and between the emerging embryonic lineages that is essential for successful development and pregnancy.

The researchers anticipate generating combined endometrial–embryo cultures that will support the development of human embryos within a maternal implantation niche, until the anterior–posterior axis first forms. They aim to uncover the signaling, transcriptomic, epigenomic and mechanical determinants of cell fate until the emergence of the organism’s body plan at gastrulation. This research will recreate and reveal a period of human development that has been entirely inaccessible, enabling the investigators to discover the key pathways and events that govern its success or failure.

The Opening the Black Box project is being led by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech; US) and the University of Cambridge (UK).

What is the nature of mutations underlying phenotypic evolution? In addition to genetic modifications of preexisting genes that can lead to differences in their sequences or activities, the “birth” of new genes with novel functions significantly contributed to the evolution of species-specific traits. The de novo emergence of protein-coding genes—that is, their origination “from scratch” (from previously noncoding DNA sequences)—represents a particularly intriguing mechanism of new gene origination. However, this mechanism was long considered to be highly unlikely, and its prevalence and evolutionary relevance remain poorly understood.

The project De Novo Gene Birth and the Evolution of the Human Brain aims to close this critical gap by systematically tracing and characterizing de novo genes that contributed to the evolution of a key organ that changed in profound ways on the human lineage and defines our species: The brain. Specifically, the investigators seek to unravel the contribution of de novo genes to the evolutionary expansion and elaboration of the neocortex, the seat of higher cognitive functions in humans. The research focuses on the contribution of de novo genes to evolutionary changes of developmental processes—key drivers of phenotypic innovations, given that adult organ anatomies and functions are set up during development.

The De Novo Gene Birth project will generate and analyze translatome data across a unique set of prenatal developmental tissue samples, and experimentally characterize select de novo genes in state-of-the-art in vitro organoid systems, ex vivo fetal tissue cultures and in vivo transgenic mouse models. Ultimately, the researchers hope to illuminate the prevalence and functional roles of de novo genes in primate cortical development and shed light on the molecular evolution underlying the unique biology of our brain.

The project is being led by Henrik Kaessmann at Heidelberg University in Germany.

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2026

In high-income countries, about one in 100 children require intensive care unit (ICU) support due to life-threatening illness, trauma or surgery. In the United States alone, over 500,000 neonates and children are admitted to ICUs every year. Although survival of critically ill children has continuously improved, with current mortality rates as low as 2.18%, one in three ICU survivors suffers from physical, cognitive, mental or psychomotor impairment after discharge.

Today, there is still a fundamental knowledge gap in accurate and timely prediction of outcomes, and a lack of effective early warning systems that can flag deteriorating pediatric patients. Most artificial intelligence (AI)-based studies in pediatric patients have used retrospective datasets for static prediction models and have not led to the implementation of assisted decision-making systems for the sickest patients. Consequently, the traditional approaches still being used to recognize and treat deteriorating patients do not adequately address the complexity, acuity and dynamics of ICU patients.

Due to the unique physiology, epidemiology and host response of neonates and children, it is essential to accelerate our understanding of the factors and learn to promptly identify previously unknown patterns that may lead to the rapid deterioration of children’s health. To improve the prevention and treatment of life-threatening events such as shock, sepsis, respiratory failure and cardiac arrest in the pediatric ICU, we urgently need embedded decision systems that integrate multimodal information using AI in a dynamic way, leading to real-time solutions at the bedside.

Through state-of-the-art integration of the multiple data sources around the patients in the ICU, the project Using Artificial Intelligence to Improve Early Recognition and Treatment of Critically Ill Children (AI in Pediatric ICUs) aims to derive and validate prediction algorithms to identify critically ill neonates and children who are likely to develop a major life-threatening event. The researchers hope to develop novel decision support tools that can enable personalized interventions in the future.

The project is being led by Luregn Schlapbach at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich (Switzerland).

Stem cells exist in most tissues in the body, where they are responsible for replacing cells in those tissues as they are lost or shed. In addition to being the source of new cells for various tissues, stem cells need to survive and replace themselves over the lifespan of an individual. Therefore, they must possess two distinct characteristics: resilience, so they can persist, as a population, for years or decades, depending on the species; and regenerative potential, so they can make new tissue either continuously or in response to injury. These two characteristics represent a classic trade-off that determines the success of species during natural selection over evolutionary time—namely, the trade-off between survival and reproduction.

During times of resource deprivation, such as a drought, species adapt and shift their physiology to survival, limiting reproduction. During times of plenty, they instead engage in reproduction, which of course is essential for the propagation of the species. Interestingly, many populations of stem cells exhibit a similar potential to shift their physiology—for long-term survival, they exist in a dormant, highly resilient state called “quiescence,” but when there is a need to proliferate, they exit the quiescent state and begin reproducing to generate more cells of the tissue.

The focus of the Stem Cell Quiescence project is to explore the hidden secrets of this quiescent state—how it adapts, how it changes over time, and how cellular decisions are made to either maintain quiescence or break quiescence and divide. The researchers will investigate how quiescent stem cells respond to resource deprivation and study how the stem cells shift their physiology toward increased resilience. Then they will compare those changes to understand how the stem cells, specifically muscle stem cells (MuSCs), shift their physiology to be more primed for regeneration.

In a second line of study, the researchers aim to map their findings of the molecular changes onto the spatial organization of the tissue. Using novel technologies, they will identify rare stem cells in the tissue and learn how they change in response to their local environment as an organism is subjected to nutrient stress through fasting. Finally, they will use CRISPR technology to identify key and unique pathways that sustain or enhance stem cell quiescence by testing for the impact of genetic changes across the whole genome. These innovative studies are based upon a novel technique, “Death-seq,” which was developed by the investigators to perform unbiased screens in cells that are not dividing and in response to stimuli that are designed to challenge the resilience of cells. These studies will provide an unprecedented level of detail regarding the molecular regulation of stem cell quiescence and will provide molecular insights into a cellular model of the evolutionary trade-off between survival and reproduction, a trade-off that is at the very core of the evolution of species.

The Stem Cell Quiescence: A Microcosm of Evolutionary Survival Mechanisms project is being led by Thomas A. Rando at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Many commentators have warned of a recent global trend of intensifying polarization. An especially worrying manifestation of this involves polarization not only over values and preferences, but over factual beliefs. For instance, Republicans and Democrats in the US disagree about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 US presidential election, while Remainers and Brexiteers in the UK disagree about the economic benefits of leaving the European Union.

At present, we lack a detailed understanding of the depth and dynamics of these disagreements. In particular, the extent to which apparently distorted beliefs and inferences are disingenuous and performative—i.e., “expressive” rather than sincere—is unclear. Do partisans really disagree about fundamental facts, or are they playing to the gallery? The project Collective Delusions: Social Identity and Scientific Misbeliefs seeks to make an important contribution to this endeavor.

By combining theory, methods and expertise from multiple disciplines (e.g., experimental economic games, surveys, computerized tasks, neuroimaging) the project aims to illuminate the extent to which beliefs and decisions are distorted by motives to signal, protect and preserve valued social identities, and to understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that mediate identity-protective cognition.

The Collective Delusions project is being led by Ryan McKay at Royal Holloway, University of London (UK).

NOMIS Researcher(s)

NOMIS Project 2023

— 2027

The face is at the center of our identity, both as humans and as individuals. The human face exhibits a high degree of morphological variation, much of which is genetically encoded, as manifested by the high similarity of facial features in monozygotic twins and by familiar resemblances. Given the central role of the face in physical identity, communication and perception of beauty, craniofacial disorders—which account for a third of all human malformations—have not only huge medical implications but also devastating social consequences. And yet, we know little about molecular mechanisms that make our facial features unique, and when perturbed, lead to craniofacial disorders.

Researchers at Stanford University recently discovered that DNA sequence mutations associated with individual variation in facial morphology are located in regulatory switches, called enhancers, that control gene transcription in cranial neural crest cells (CNCCs), the main progenitor cell type for the developing human face. These mutations in enhancers are commonly present in human populations and lead to only subtle changes in dosage of the regulated genes. In contrast, in craniofacial diseases, it is the genes themselves that are mutated, often in a way that affects only one of the two gene copies present in each cell. As a result, the gene dosage is reduced by half, which is nonetheless sufficient to cause disease. The researchers found that the genes mutated in craniofacial disorders and affected by enhancer mutations in normal-range facial variation are enriched for a specific type of molecular function: They encode transcription factors. These observations suggest that small changes in transcription factor dosage are a prevalent mechanism by which facial variation arises in health and disease.

The project Molecular and Cellular Basis for Building Individuality and Diversity of the Human Facial Form aims to understand how such small changes in transcription factor propagate through the regulatory networks and translate into differences in cellular behaviors and, ultimately, morphological diversity. The project investigators will develop tools to precisely regulate transcription factor dosage in two complementary systems: An in vitro human stem cell model that recapitulates CNCC formation and differentiation in the dish, and in vivo mouse models allowing for stage-specific transcription factor perturbation during mouse embryogenesis. Using these two systems, the researchers will employ diverse measurements and computational approaches to understand how transcription factor dosage affects enhancer activity, gene transcription, cellular behaviors of facial progenitors and facial shape. This integrated approach will provide a comprehensive view of mechanisms driving phenotypic variation of the face in health and disease at the molecular, cellular and morphological levels.

The Individuality and Diversity of the Human Facial Form project is being led by Joanna Wysocka at Stanford University, US.

In a world of nation-states, we usually think of borders as static, as a fixed line of demarcation between sovereign states, marking the boundary of their territory and the limit of their authority. While this perception has rarely captured historical complexities of the past, it is no longer viable in the 21st century. Processes of globalization, securitization and digitalization continue to transform national borders all around the world, turning them into dynamic, technologically advanced and highly securitized spaces.

The project Elastic Borders: Rethinking the Borders of the 21st Century advances a rethinking of the border, building on the concept of elasticity. Thinking of borders as elastic offers new avenues to understanding not only how state borders stretch and retract, but also how they create fields of stress and violations in the very processes of extension and retraction. Borders become elastic when they are extended notably either beyond, or behind, the territorial confines of a state. Borders can be extended and retracted by the institutional or noninstitutional actors enforcing them, and thus are turning into elastic devices of governmentality. This can be observed not only at the European Union’s external frontiers but around the globe.

Taking the case of the EU’s external frontier, the project carries out a qualitative, interdisciplinary and multisited study that will explore the properties, means and sociopolitical effects of the elastic border at the horizontal and vertical level. The horizontal analysis offers a broader, bird’s-eye view of the enactment of the elastic border while the vertical analysis focuses on three critical nodes in Greece, Spain and Tunisia for an in-depth analysis of its sociopolitical impacts on the ground. The innovative combination of these two levels enables a comprehensive understanding of the transformation of the EU’s elastic border over a timespan of 10 years, from 2015 to 2025.

The Elastic Borders project is being led by Bilgin Ayata at the University of Graz (Austria).

Research is the vital expression of humankind’s most important qualities: curiosity and imagination.

Explorers, inventors, pioneers—dedicated researchers on the frontiers of science and the humanities.

Insight, when it comes, changes everything.