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Answer to the lovelife of birds

An international research programme that may produce significant results in evolutionary biology is led by the University of Debrecen. Researchers from ten countries discussed various issues at the opening conference of the programme that will be realised in the framework of the Élvonal Program.

The social system of the New Caledonian crow, the offspring care habits of frogs, the extraordinary reproduction of the zebrafish, the evolution of sex ratio and sex roles, and the relationship between courting habits and life expectancy are just a few examples of the issues to be discussed at the 4-day conference, which is the first step of the establishment of a new evolutionary biology research group. The opening event of the conference was held at the Visitors’ Centre of the Hortobágy National Park on Thursday.

Tamás Székely ethologist, professor of the University of Debrecen, has been researching the evolution of sex roles for decades. Twenty years ago his team only studied shore birds on the Southern Great Plain and on the Hortobágy. Today they are working in ten countries.

- We are mainly interested in the social behaviour and reproduction of shore birds like ringed plovers, greenshanks and related species. It may be of interest not just for a researcher, but for a layman as well why it is that some birds cling to their partners, while others search for a new one from time to time. We would like to understand the evolutionary background of this difference. At the same time, these research programmes are also significant in terms of nature protection, as reproduction and offspring care basically affects the survival of populations and therefore of species, which is vital from the perspective of sustaining biodiversity. Consequently, the programme may also contribute to the research of environmental sustainability and to the definition of nature protection practices, in addition to working to achieve its objectives as basic research in the field of evolutionary biology – explained Professor Tamás Székely at the opening event on Thursday.

The new, 5-year research programme, which has also become part of the Élvonal Researcher Excellence Programme of the National Research, Development and Innovation Office that supports the best exploratory research projects, will include the study of ecological, demographic and genetic characteristics of the reproduction of shore birds.

The ethologist added that the research programme will also help researchers of the future make their first steps in their careers, as those young talents who participate in the programme will be involved in cutting-edge research work, which may make them more competitive on the international stage as well.

The opening event of the conference was also attended by József Pálinkás, president of the National Research, Development and Innovation Office, who in his welcome speech considered the forum held on the Hortobágy exemplary.

- This conference, attended by the best evolutionary biology experts of ten countries, shows the appeal this programme may have. In addition to changing experience with Hungarian researchers, the crème of this field will also spread the word around the world about the event and scientific life in Hungary. I often say that a nation receives no more from the science of the world than it adds to it – said József Pálinkás.

In the first round of the Élvonal – Researcher Excellence Programme the body made a decision about funding 12 research groups, including the organisation established at the UD, out of the 48 applicants, with a total amount of 3 billion HUF.

- The success of the program is reflected by the fact that one of the groups receiving support in the first round has already won the Advanced Grant of the European Research Council of the EU, which means financial support to the amount of over 2 million EUR. I hope there will be more researchers and programmes in the future to achieve such success, and they will produce results and findings that will be highly acknowledged by the international scientific life. I can even imagine that a Hungarian researcher will be awarded with the Nobel Prize. I know young talents in Hungary who have the potential – said József Pálinkás.

In his opening presentation the president explained the Hungarian research funding system, highlighting that the University of Debrecen has been the most successful higher education institution regarding the number of calls for proposals announced by the Office.

- With 40 winning proposals and 28.4 billion HUF financial support, the UD is at the top of the list in several fields from thematic research proposals to major programmes like FIEK. I hope that these resources will contribute to the development of the university so that it will achieve a better ranking among the universities of the world – pointed out József Pálinkás.

In 2018 again, applicants can submit proposals without any thematic restriction. In all areas of science, NKFI awaits proposals from lead researchers with projects that are in a very dynamic and productive phase. Researchers who have produced results acknowledged by the international science community and with outstanding effect on their field of science, who have shaped their fields, and who have contributed to the expansion of the community of young researchers by setting directions for them.

The lead researcher should be in the top 10 percent of international researchers in their own fields, and should have extensive experience as a researcher and supervisor. Out of the projects planned to be launched in 2018, last year the lead researchers of 12 internationally recognised basic research projects received such support. They work in fields like brain research, mathematics, psychology and cell biology. Funding covers a 5-year long period between 2019 and 2023, after which the beneficiaries will have to compete again with new applicants.

Press office