Two Ghent University researchers win a 2021 ERC Starting Grant

(10-01-2022) Ghent University researchers Paul Michael Kurtz and Alexandra Simonenko win an ERC Starting Grant. With this grant they can launch their project, form their team and pursue their best ideas.

397 early-career researchers won European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants; among them two Ghent University researchers: Paul Michael Kurtz with the project PhiSci and Alexandra Simonenko with the project CAUSALITY

The projects of the Ghent University Grantees

Philology as Science in 19th-Century Europe

PhiSci, the project of Paul Michael Kurtz, develops a novel framework to understand how philology – the historical study of text and language – once reigned as ‘queen of the sciences.’ This project pioneers a new account of how and why philology achieved such extraordinary success in nineteenth-century Europe, the time when the research university was founded and modern disciplines were formed. By drawing on history of science, media theory, and informatics, it analyzes textual and linguistic study as a ‘science in the making.’ The PhiSci team will thus uncover how local practices, forms of representation, adaptations of instruments, and strategic cooperation consolidated into robust programs that generated stable knowledge and knowledge communities. Specifically, their work will focus on infrastructure, media, collaboration, and scholarly protocols and traces their impact across Semitic, Indo-Iranian, Romance, Germanic, and Classical philologies. In doing so, PhiSci aims to explain how philology operated as a diverse system of relations that projected a unity which enabled it to wield a scientific authority greater than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, this research on the history of knowledge opens up vistas onto such contemporary problems as the capture of data, production of information, and use of conceptual objects. These issues prove especially important as they underpin textual studies and digital humanities and drive new streams of global knowledge today.

Modeling causes of language change and conservatism

Universally, human language changes over time. In that it is similar to a biological organism which keeps mutating and adapting itself to its environment, with some features rising in frequency and some declining. In the case of language, the origin of a change can be seen as a shift in the frequency of a given variant of linguistic expression (for instance, a given word order) in the speech of an individual. Unlike biological organisms whose goal is to survive, the success of linguistic “adaptation” can be measured by how well speakers make themselves understood without spending excessive efforts. A lot about this process, however, remains unclear. Why do such adaptations ever become necessary? And why do they take so long (we talk centuries), given that humans are extremely efficient learners? The goal of Alexandra Simonenko's project CAUSALITY  is to investigate factors which push language change forward and those militating against it. This investigation will involve, on the one hand, computer simulations involving multiple “generations” of artificial “speakers” communicating with each other, and, on the other, retrieval of actual historical patterns of change from treebanks of Dutch, English, and Low German. Treebanks – linguistic databases with annotation layers that make it possible to automatically quantify word orders and word shapes at different periods – are currently available for the latter two languages, but not for Dutch. An important sub-project of CAUSALITY is to create a large treebank of historical Dutch. This will enable deeper insights into the evolution of Dutch and the way it gave rise to the modern linguistic landscape.

"I am especially happy that the project will be hosted at Ghent University, which boasts a vibrant community of researchers working on language evolution, and, in particular, experts on treebanks and Dutch dialectology", said Alexandra Simonenko

More than €600 million investment

Following the first call for proposals under the EU’s new R&I programme, Horizon Europe, €619 million will be invested in excellent projects dreamed up by scientists and scholars. Grants worth on average €1.5 million will help ambitious younger researchers launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas. The selected proposals cover all disciplines of research. Female researchers won some 43% of grants, an increase from 37% in 2020 and the highest share to date. 

“With this very first round of long-awaited grants, I am glad to see the European Research Council remaining a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme. I am looking forward to seeing what new breakthroughs and opportunities the new ERC laureates will bring, and how they will inspire young people to follow their curiosity and make discoveries for the benefit of us all", said Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth
“Letting young talent thrive in Europe and go after their most innovative ideas - this is the best investment in our future, not least with the ever-growing competition globally. We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow. So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams. Some of them will be coming back from overseas, thanks to the ERC grants, to do science in Europe. We must continue to make sure Europe remains a scientific powerhouse”, said Prof. Maria Leptin, President of the European Research Council 

The laureates of this grant competition proposed to carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 22 EU and associated countries. There are nationals of 45 countries among the winners of this call. Thirteen researchers who were previously based in the US will move to Europe as a result of this funding. This call for proposals attracted over 4,000 proposals, which were reviewed by panels of renowned researchers from around the world. The grants will create more than 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff at the host institutions. 

More about the ERC

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept Grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation. The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council, whereof VIB-UGent professor Dirk Inzé is a member. Since 1 November 2021, Maria Leptin is the President of the ERC. The overall ERC budget from 2021 to 2027 is more than €16 billion, as part of the Horizon Europe programme, under the responsibility of the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel.

Researchers within and outside of Ghent University who wish to apply for an ERC Starting Grant with our university as host institution, can contact the EU Team for advice and support.


  • EU-team Ghent University,
  • Paul Michael Kurz,
  • Alexandra Simonenko,