Let's stay connected !

The Université libre de Bruxelles is not just research and teaching closely intertwined. If proof was needed, the selection of articles in this issue should suffice to convince you.

The ULB is:

- a forum for reflection and exchange, with a better insertion of the human sciences in the management of societal problems (see article on the Maison des Sciences Humaines).

- the acknowledged seat of high quality research (see the article on the work resulting from collaboration between the ULB's Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and the ULB-Cancer Research Centre (U-CRC) and of research supported by the European Research Council (see the DEMIURGE project and the work of the ULB Neuroscience Institute).

- a place for intervention at international level, whether by speaking out (see the motion in favour of academics and researchers in Turkey, and the 11 privileged partners strategy) or by taking action (see the initiative to fund 10 postdoctoral fellowships for refugees and the three healthcare projects in Greece).

We hope you enjoy reading this newsletter !

Anne Lentiez, Director, External Relations Department


The ULB offers 10 postdoctoral fellowships to researchers with refugee status

In order to support the refugees who have been flocking to Europe these past months, the ULB has decided to take action within its own domains, research and teaching, by offering 10 postdoctoral fellowships for researchers with refugee status. These fellowships will be named after Khaled al'As-ad, the 82-year-old archaeologist who was beheaded by Daesh for participating in international scientific conferences and collaborating with international colleagues. The ULB publicized the call for applications in collaboration with the association 'Scholars at Risk', an international network of higher education institutions whose purpose is to promote academic freedom worldwide and of which the ULB is a member.

From among the 35 initial expressions of interest, a total of 17 eligible candidates were identified, 11 in human and social sciences, 4 in sciences and technology and 2 in life sciences. Three of the eligible candidates were women and 15 were of Syrian descent. A third of the refugees have arrived with the latest wave of immigrants and the majority are between 30 and 40 years of age.

As every fellowship costs 40,000 EUR per year, the ULB has mobilised 500,000 EUR of its own funds and has launched an appeal for donations to collect the missing amount.

Donations can be made to account number BE79 2100 4294 0033 - BIC code GEBABEBB - with the following reference 5D00.Y.000011 - DON SOLIDARITÉ UNIVERSITAIRE RÉFUGIÉS.

Opening of the "Maison des Sciences humaines"

The ULB has opened its "Maison des Sciences humaines" (House of Human sciences), an inter-faculty structure to host and support research in human and social sciences. The project involves more than a hundred researchers, working on a common research topic: people and society.

More specifically, since its creation, the MSH (Maison des Sciences humaines) has been hosting three different integrated teams of researchers: LIEU (Interdisciplinary Laboratory for Urban Studies), OMAM (Observatory of the Muslim and Arab worlds) and STRIGES (Interdisciplinary Centre for Research in Gender, Equality and Sexuality). The MSH also has five affiliated teams of researchers: the Centre for Legal History and Legal Anthropology, the Centre for Political Theory, the Interdisciplinary Research centre for the study of Religions and Secularism, the Centre for Research in Archaeology and Heritage and finally the Centre for Public Law.

The MSH focuses on fundamental research and aims to achieve a closer involvement of human sciences in the management of social problems. The MSH will be receptive to questions from political, socio-economic and other players. A platform for debate, exchange and sharing of interdisciplinary knowledge, it also aims to be attentive to the practical problems facing our society and to current events, and is ready to advise the political, socio-economic and cultural worlds.

Open to the outside world, the MSH aims to participate in a number of research projects with European and international partners and will welcome every year several dozen visiting professors, postdoctoral researchers and international mobility researchers.


The "Urgences Grèce" Campaign

At a time when there are increasing concerns about the future of Europe, it should be remembered that, in Greece, more than 2.5 million citizens no longer have access to healthcare and that infant mortality has doubled in three years, creating a dramatic situation within our modern Europe, one of whose pillars is precisely social security and universal access to healthcare.

Médecins du Monde and several hospitals linked to the ULB* have therefore launched the "Urgences Grèce" campaign, under the auspices of the ULB's Faculty of Medicine, in favour of the right to healthcare in Greece.

With the support of the ULB and the city of Brussels, several hospitals have decided to join forces to inform people about the health crisis in Greece, raise awareness amongst the Belgian population of the collapse of the Greek healthcare system, collect money to fund concrete projects in Greece and create a network of solidarity with Greek doctors.

This campaign supports three concrete projects: in Piraeus, Euboea and Thessaloniki. Find out more about these projects and support the campaign at: www.urgencesgrece.eu where you will also have the opportunity to sign an online petition.

*CHU Saint-Pierre, Hôpital Erasme, Institut Jules Bordet, CHU Brugmann, HUDERF, Hôpitaux Iris-Sud, CHIREC, CHU Ambroise Paré, CHR Haute Senne et CHU Tivoli.

The ULB's "privileged partners"

The ULB has chosen to select 10 privileged partners from among the hundreds of partnership agreements signed with universities around the world. What is a privileged partnership ?

A "privileged partnership" is an agreement signed by two institutions which agree to establish 'privileged relations', with a view to enhancing collaboration, and more specifically implementing joint projects and intensifying exchanges.

The concept of "privileged partner" was first introduced at the ULB 15 years ago. At a time when the number of bilateral agreements between universities was increasing, it seemed a good idea to select from among our vast number of partners a small number with whom relations were more structured. At that time, the initiative was innovative. Today, such an initiative is a key feature of the policy of many universities around the world.

It has been decided that the ULB's future privileged partnership agreements should take into account the following criteria:

-the existence of a large number of fruitful collaborations with the universities concerned;
-the certainty that the universities concerned acknowledge the privileged partnership, ideally by assigning resources to consolidate it;
-proof that the universities concerned fall within the ULB's strategy.

The agreements are signed for a period of 5 years, at the end of which they are evaluated before being either renewed or terminated.

What does a privileged partnership actually mean for the ULB?

A privileged partnership enables us to:

1. select a few universities from among all those with which we have signed an agreement and emphasise the importance of this partnership to the members of the university community of the universities concerned;
2. widely publicize our relations, thus reinforcing our renown;
3. encourage the university community to develop relations with colleagues and teams at the universities concerned;
4. facilitate contacts with researchers at our partner universities, by maintaining regular contact with their international relations offices;
5. give priority to the funding of exchanges with these institutions.

Who are the ULB's ten privileged partners?

  • University of Oxford
  • University of Cambridge
  • Université de Lausanne
  • Université de Genève
  • Université Pierre et Marie Curie – Paris 6
  • Université de Montréal
  • Beihang University (Beijing)
  • Universidade de Sao Paulo
  • Waseda University (Tokyo)
  • University of California (Berkeley)

For further information, please contact Yvon Molinghen: Yvon.Molinghen@ulb.ac.be

The ULB offers its support to Turkish academics and researchers

The ULB offers its support to the Turkish academics and researchers who signed the 10 January petition. Freedom of research and of expression is indissociable from academic activities. Every University worthy of the name must respect it ! Over 1,100 academics and researchers from 89 Turkish universities signed a petition on 10 January 2016 calling on the Turkish state to stop the massacres in the Kurdish regions of south-east Turkey. Invoking the international treaties signed by Turkey, the signatories demand negotiations, an end to violence, respect of fundamental rights and the setting up of an independent investigation.

Despite the totally peaceful nature of this demand, the Turkish Council of Higher Education announced retaliatory measures and sent a note to the Universities demanding they initiate investigations of the signatories. Nine universities have complied and, so far, 29 academics or researchers have been fired.

Today, our colleagues who signed the petition live in fear of being apprehended. Furthermore, this climate of fear is amplified by the media and by statements from ultra-nationalist circles and the Turkish president himself.

The Université libre de Bruxelles reaffirms its unwavering commitment to researchers' freedom of research and of expression, wherever they are, and expresses its solidarity with Turkish colleagues who face this repression. It calls on the Turkish authorities to withdraw this note and to respect the inalienable right of academics and researchers to express an opinion in a public space.


ERC to Mauro Birattari

Swarm robotics consists in developing intelligent robots and making them collaborate to carry out complex tasks. The development of such a technology remains a challenge and requires intense laboratory work.

Mauro Birattari, researcher in the IRIDIA laboratory (Brussels School of Engineering), has recently been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council to develop an automatic design of intelligent robots.

In the course of the DEMIURGE project, the researcher and his team will try to develop a new tool that is capable of determining all the computer parameters required to create intelligent robots. They will start by defining a language shared with the machine, that will enable it to comprehend the problem posed. The programme will then identify the most optimal way to solve the problem and will choose all the necessary parameters, out of a set of pre-programmed software and hardware modules, to enable the 'swarm robots' to carry out the requested task.

The ERC Grant will support Mauro Birattari's research for 5 years. This is the second ERC grant awarded to this laboratory, after that awarded to Marco Dorigo.

For further information:

Obeying orders

"I was only obeying orders!" This argument has often been used as a justification for committing acts considered reprehensible... With the support of the European Research Council (ERC), researchers from the ULB Neuroscience Institute, UNI - Centre for Research in Cognition and Neurosciences, Faculty of Psychology and Education - and from University College London have investigated the mechanisms at work in a context of coercion and how people feel when they receive orders. Their study has recently been published in the journal Current Biology.

"Our results suggest people who obey orders could actually feel less responsible for the outcomes of their action: they may not just be claiming that they feel less responsible. People appear to experience a sort of distance from the outcome of their actions when they are obeying instructions", observes Patrick Haggard, University College London.

This study is relevant to both psychology and politics: in a society based on people's sense of responsibility, it is necessary to understand the factors that influence people's sense of responsibility, so they can be managed.

"Society sometimes requires people to obey an order to do something unpleasant", said Emilie Caspar from the ULB Neuroscience Institute, first author of the study. "Our findings may have several practical implications. First, maybe people can be trained to feel more responsible: that might allow them to resist orders that are inappropriate. Second, our results could be particularly important for people who give orders. If people who follow orders feel a reduced responsibility for their actions, then perhaps people who give orders should feel increased responsibility... For example, in some forms of government, a minister is held responsible for the actions of the civil servants working in their department. Society needs to carefully manage this kind of distribution of responsibility."

The RNA alphabet

Led by François Fuks from the ULB's Laboratory of Cancer Epigenetics and the ULB-Cancer Research Centre (U-CRC), researchers have, for the first time, shed light on the role played by one of the RNA 'letters': hmC or hydroxymethylation.

RNA is not just an intermediary molecule between DNA and proteins, it seems to have its own alphabet, which is just as important as the DNA alphabet. By conducting research on fruit flies, the researchers discovered that hmC promotes the translation of RNA into proteins. They also showed the essential role played by hmC in development: when hmC production was impeded, the flies (drosophila) died. Last but not least, they have fully mapped the epigenetics of hmC.

Published in the prestigious journal Science on 15 January, this study - in which the Molecular Biology of the Gene Laboratory in the Institute of Molecular Biology and Medicine (IBMM) participated- is part of a rapidly growing research field: the epigenetic changes in RNA could explain several major mysteries in the study of life and also improve our understanding of diseases such as cancer.