The Irish Research Council (IRC) has welcomed the announcement that eight researchers based in Ireland have secured European Research Council (ERC) "starting grants".
The researchers, based in University College Cork, Maynooth University, University of Limerick and University College Dublin, will share in an estimated €12 million for cutting-edge research in life sciences, materials engineering, social sciences and the humanities.
Bioethics in patent decision-making, gut health and eco-friendly electronics are among Ireland-based projects selected by the ERC for funding from more than 4,000 proposals. The ERC is making 397 awards representing an investment under Horizon Europe of €619 million.
Women in Irish research are strongly represented, securing six of the eight grants. Five of the eight awardees have been previously supported by the IRC in development of their research ideas, including at postgraduate and postdoctoral level, and via research networking grants.
IRC assistant director Dr Gráinne Walshe said: “ERC grants are among the most prestigious of any funding body worldwide and the eight awards announced today are evidence of the quality of individual researchers across all disciplines in the Irish research system.
“Half of the awards are in the social sciences and humanities, representing a tremendous boost for these disciplines and the associated grantees. We are delighted to have supported the majority of the successful awardees through our own funding schemes.”
The ERC supports announced on Monday demonstrate modest investment in researchers with exceptional promise at early-career stage lays the foundation for success in European funding further down the line, Dr Walshe noted.
The IRC has joint responsibility with Science Foundation Ireland for promoting and supporting engagement by Irish researchers with the ERC. The IRC recently funded a social sciences and humanities national contact point, under a partnership with the Irish Universities Association, to support social science and humanities engagement with the ERC.
The three UCC researchers receiving support will work on the next generation of RNA medicines; the relationship between the brain and gut microbiome; and protecting the music of threatened indigenous cultures. They are Dr María Rodriguez Aburto of APC Microbiome Ireland and the department of anatomy and neuroscience; Dr Piotr Kowalski of the school of pharmacy and APC Microbiome Ireland; and Dr Lijuan Qian of the school of film, music and theatre.
Currently there is limited understanding of how our gut microbiome communicates with the brain. The research project by Dr Aburto is to examine the relationship between the brain and the gut and could have ground-breaking implications for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and precision medicine.
“We have more microbes than human cells in and on our bodies, most of them inhabiting our gut. I believe that understanding how gut microbes communicate with the developing brain will provide a new lens to view neurodevelopment,” she explained.
Dr Kowalski is developing cutting-edge circular RNA technology and new delivery methods to tackle unmet medical challenges such as sepsis, which kills 11 million people every year and is the cause of one in five deaths worldwide.
As evidenced by the recent success of the mRNA-based vaccines against Covid-19, “RNA-based drugs are a new class of biologics on the path to becoming a major platform in drug development. My ambition with this project is to help reshape the future of RNA therapies which I believe could be circular,” he noted.
Dr Qian is examining how indigenous cultures are threatened through cultural imperialism, situations of technological change and political and economic disadvantage. Working with remote communities in China, her research examines how people can overcome this challenge through adopting new digital media technologies to sustain their languages, traditional songs, music and dances.
Dr Aisling McMahon, who is based in Maynooth University, is to undertake a five-year research project on bioethics. She will lead a team of four researchers which will investigate the bioethical implications of patents over technologies which relate to the human body, including medicines, human genes, elements of diagnostic tests, prosthetic limbs and human enhancement technologies such as potential use of brain implant technologies.
“Patents allow rightsholders to control how patented technologies are accessed and by whom. Therefore, patents granted over technologies related to the human body and how they are licensed can have significant implications for how we treat, use and modify our human bodies,” she said.
“Given the blurring between the human body and patentable technologies, such patents can pose significant bioethical implications affecting how we treat, use and modify our bodies. We see this in many contexts including Covid-19. Yet such bioethical implications are often marginalised within patent decision-making,” Dr McMahon added.
Dr Ailise Bulfin of UCD is to investigate fictional representations of child sexual abuse in contemporary culture. “The scale of this ERC award means that my project can shed light not just on how the critical issue of child sexual abuse [CSA] is represented across the wide range of cultural works that depict it, but also on the ways that these works may affect their audiences,” she said.
“Throughout its conception the project has been generously supported by the insights and advice of survivors of CSA and support professionals who work with survivors. The award allows me to create knowledge that will be of benefit to these groups and to the wider community as it aims ultimately to illuminate how fictional works may shape public understandings of CSA, which in turn affect CSA prevention efforts and survivors’ health outcomes,” she added.
Dr Alice Mauger, based at UCD School of History, will look into cultural and societal implications of the ubiquitous “drunken Irish” label, by examining representations and accounts of Irish alcohol and drug use from post-war migrant communities of London and New York.
By casting alcohol and drugs as prisms through which to view experiences and portrayals of the Irish abroad, she will examine intersections between alcohol and drug use, mental health, migration and ethnicity, and offer a blueprint for future comparative analyses of health, ethnicity and race in historical perspective.
Dr Mauger said: “We will interrogate why the ‘drunken Irish’ stereotype has remained so prevalent since the Second World War and how it has evolved. In doing so, the project hopes to provide us with a new way of understanding ethnic and racial inequalities and prejudices at a time when these issues are becoming urgent both within and beyond historical scholarship.”
Dr Eoghan Cunnane, who is based at UL School of Engineering, said: "I am thrilled to receive this award and to begin establishing my own independent research group. It is a great honour for me to join the ranks of principal investigators on this island that I have admired for so long. This ERC-funded project will allow me to continue working in the field of urological research on the increasingly important topic of male infertility."
Dr Sarah Guerin, who is based at the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals at UL, is to work on "piezoelectric biomolecules" to generate lead-free, reliable, eco-friendly electronics.
“The acceleration of eco-friendly piezoelectric technologies will be of huge importance to the Irish economy while greatly reducing the environmental impact of electromechanical sensing technologies worldwide. I look forward to attracting diverse talent to the west coast and pushing the boundaries of materials science research,” she said.