Saving lives & the planet: How Europe’s top researchers will spend their funding
How exactly will climate changes shape the Earth’s surface and how will that affect life on the planet?
Is there a way to manipulate oxygen-sensing enzymes in plants so they can better tolerate flooding? How has digital technology changed political advocacy and what does this mean for democracy?
What are the long-term effects of food additives on human health? Will 4D breast imaging transform personalised treatments?
For the next five years, 318 top scientists and scholars across Europe will dig deep to find the answers to these questions and more, expanding human knowledge in disciplines from physical sciences and engineering to life sciences, social sciences and humanities.
This is all thanks to newly awarded funding from the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grants, a Horizon 2020 programme to help mid-career researchers advance their research and innovation projects.
A total of €635 million have been awarded to successful applicants for the latest funding call, with each researcher receiving their share of up to €2 million for five years to build their own research teams and pursue their best ideas at the frontiers of human knowledge.
For a better understanding of what some of these researchers hope to achieve, here’s a closer look at five ERC Consolidator Grants projects selected for awards and highlighted by the council here:
#1: Strengthening representative democracy in an online age
Digital technologies have fundamentally changed the field of political campaigning and advocacy in the last decade, from how messages are spread to the masses to how political strategies are put together and delivered. But while this could bode well for political campaigns, how much has this, and will this, change the quality of democracies around the world?
The Advocacy in Digital Democracy: Use, Impact and Democratic Consequences (ADVODID) research project by the University of Copenhagen’s Anne Rasmussen aims to find out. Researchers will gather systemic evidence from eight countries spanning five continents to assess and compare the real effects of both online and offline advocacy tools.
“Its results will improve our understanding of how modern advocacy impacts its target audiences and changes participatory democracy, as well as offer suggestions of how to strengthen representative democracy in an online age,” the ERC says.
ERC Funding: €1.9 million for five years
#2: The long-term health impact of food additives
Although used for centuries to enhance food quality or preserve taste, the long-term effects of food additives on human health aren’t always clear.
Many are harmless to humans and some, like antioxidants, even come with health benefits, but there are concerns that there may be compounds in hundreds of commonly consumed food and beverage products that could be harmful.
For his ERC-funded project, researcher Dr Mathilde Touvier of the Insituti National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm) in France will investigate this in greater detail, looking at the health implications of repeated exposure to ‘cocktails’ of food additives and their relation with risk of obesity, cardiovascular diseases, cancer and mortality.
ERC Funding: €2 million for five years
#3: The effects of climate changes on the Earth’s surface
Climate change is often cited as the greatest threat facing humanity today. But more than that is the lasting, and perhaps even irreversible, damage it will wreak on the planet.
While human understanding of and action taken to reverse the threat of climate change continue to improve every day, predicting where climate changes will hit the hardest remains a challenge.
How will these changes alter Earth’s surface? What are the consequences of these changes on mankind?
Dr. Taylor Schildgen of the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany, will use her ERC grant to address this.
#4: A new era for breast cancer treatment
According to the American Cancer Society, except for skin cancer, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women and the second leading cause of cancer death. The chance that a woman will die from breast cancer in the country is about 1 in 38 or about 2.6 percent.
But personalised treatment with the aid of new and novel technologies can help women improve the odds. Precision medicine could help maximise the rate of complete response, minimise ineffective therapy, and eliminate the need for localised breast cancer surgery.
To achieve this, Ioannis Sechopoulos of the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands hopes to create a new way to analyse breast cancer: a 4D dynamic contrast-enhanced dedicated breast computed tomography that is capable of characterising every different genomic, molecular, and physiologic region present in a breast tumour.
Analysis of these 4D images will allow the identification of regions with different therapy resistance, allowing treatment response monitoring and enabling treatment adjustments where necessary.
ERC Funding: €2.3million for five years
#5: Clean hydrogen production
The threat of climate change on the planet means the world isn’t just facing an environmental crisis – it is also facing an energy crisis.
The growing demand for clean energy has spawned a new and urgent need for alternative sources.
Led by material scientist Nicolas Boscher of the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) in Luxembourg, the Chemical Engineering of Fused MetalloPorphyrins Thin Films for the Clean Production of Hydrogen (CLEANH2) will help engineer these solutions.
CLEANH2 will develop a new class of materials for the clean and efficient production of hydrogen from ‘solar water splitting’ (generating molecular hydrogen and oxygen for fuel cells), a breakthrough that if successful, could support a new economy built not on fossil fuels but on hydrogen.
According to the ERC, a total of 2,453 research proposals were received for this new round of Consolidator Grants, of which approximately 12 percent would be funded, with some 31 percent awarded to female applicants.
The awards should lead to the creation of some 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other staff working in the grantees’ research teams.
The first round on December 10 saw €600 million in funds awarded to 301 researchers across the EU. A further 17 winners announced on December 18 consumed the total budget available for the funding call.
In a statement announcing the first round of ERC Consolidator Grants awards, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Mariya Gabriel said:
“Knowledge developed in these new projects will allow us to understand the challenges we face at a more fundamental level, and may provide us with breakthroughs and innovations that we haven’t even imagined.”
Such funding programmes for frontier research by the EU are important investments into the future, Gabriel said, especially with new challenges on the horizon facing mankind.
This is why it is “so important that we reach an agreement on an ambitious Horizon Europe budget for the next multiannual budget”, she added.
“More available research funding would also allow us to create more opportunities everywhere in the EU – excellence should not be a question of geography,” she pointed out.
EU member states are currently hammering out the details of the budget, with concerns raised that research has become the easy target for cuts even as the scientists call for a more expansive science budget.
Amid this uncertainty, the fate of the Horizon initiative hangs in the balance.
The commission had earlier this year proposed a €94.1 billion budget for Horizon Europe, which will run from 2021 for seven years like its precursor Horizon 2020, a significant increase from the previous budget of €77 billion. But independent observers believe the final approved funding will be much lower after negotiations are completed.
The ERC Consolidator Grants are just one of several funding schemes under the Horizon initiative, which offers funding support for frontier research, cross-disciplinary proposals and pioneering ideas in new and emerging fields that introduce unconventional and innovative approaches.
The mission of the ERC itself is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-driven frontier research across all fields of research.
Apart from the Consolidator Grants, other funds disbursed by the ERC include the ERC Starting Grant for early-career researchers (up to €1.5 million for five years); ERC Advanced Grant for senior research leaders (up to €2.5 million for five years); ERC Proof of Concept Grants for ERC grantees who want to check the market and/or innovation potential of research results from ERC projects (€150,000 for 18 months); and the ERC Synergy Grants to address research questions that can only be answered by the coordinated work of a small group of two to four principal investigators (€10 million for six years).