Stirling philosopher recognised with £1m of UK government support

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A University of Stirling academic has been recognised as a rising star of research after being awarded more than £1m for an innovative new project.

Dr Giacomo Melis, based in the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, is one of 101 Fellows from UK universities and businesses to benefit from a UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowship. The prestigious awards, announced today (Thursday 15 October) by Science Minister Amanda Solloway, represent an investment of £109 million. The Future Leaders Fellowships scheme is designed to establish the careers of world-class research and innovation leaders across the UK.

Dr Melis will receive just over £1m to investigate the nature of rational belief-revision, the relationship between human and animal rationality, and whether animals and human infants may be capable of some form of reflective thinking.

Dr Melis said: “It’s an honour to receive this Fellowship and I am very grateful for the support of UKRI.

“Philosophers often deny that very young children and animals may be described as rational on the grounds that they appear to lack the ability to reflect on and reappraise their goals and reasons. By contrast, cognitive scientists show little hesitation in describing infants and animals as rational agents. There is thus a tension in the way different disciplines characterise rational behaviour."

The research study, titled Agency, Rationality, and Epistemic Defeat (ARED), has two broad goals: to develop a theory of rational belief-revision that applies to the various agents discussed in philosophy and cognitive science (thereby developing a common framework for these disciplines); and to design and run new cognitive tests on some presumed unreflective agents (pre-verbal children, pigs, and dogs) aimed at assessing whether they may be capable of some form of reflective thinking.

“This project represents the first long-term collaboration between analytic epistemology, cognitive developmental psychology and cognitive ethology, and it aims to lay the groundwork for the interdisciplinary study of epistemic rationality and cognition,” Dr Melis added.

Supporting innovation leaders

UKRI’s Future Leaders Fellowship initiative aims to support the creation of a new cohort of research and innovation leaders who will have links across different sectors and disciplines. Awardees will each receive between £400,000 and £1.5 million over an initial four years. The grant supports challenging and novel projects, and the development of the fellow’s career. The funding can also used to support team members, their development, and pay for equipment and other needs.

Announcing the successful fellows at today’s (15 October) Future Leaders Conference, Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “We are committed to building back better through research and innovation, and supporting our science superstars in every corner of the UK.

“By backing these inspirational Future Leaders Fellows, we will ensure that their brilliant ideas can be transferred straight from the lab into vital everyday products and services that will help to change all our lives for the better.”

UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, said: “Future Leaders Fellowships provide researchers and innovators with freedom and support to drive forward transformative new ideas and the opportunity to learn from peers right across the country.

"The fellows announced today illustrate how the UK continues to support and attract talented researchers and innovators across every discipline to our universities and businesses, with the potential to deliver change that can be felt across society and the economy."

Research impact

Dr Melis’s research will begin in early 2021 and is expected to last at least four years. It will involve experts from Stirling’s division of law and philosophy, as well as Dr Eva Rafetseder from Stirling’s department of psychology, and Dr. Zsófia Virányi of the Messerli Research Institute at the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna.

The Philosopher is hopeful the results of his project will have a wide impact. He said: “The studies on pigs and dogs may deliver information relevant for the assessment of welfare in pig farming and impact new techniques in dog training, and the developmental studies of infants may provide insights in to early childhood education.

“The interdisciplinary nature of the project and its study of the relation between human and animal rationality will be highly relevant to ongoing debates about animal rights, and the specificity of human nature.”

To engage the general public, a series of eight café Philosophique and four public lectures will be organised throughout the length or the research project.

The full list of those receiving Future Leaders Fellowships can be found on the UKRI website.