Follow the money, do the research

 

The ERC is a gold mine, and the gold standard, for scientific research funding

For an organisation to back one Nobel prize winner is impressive but being able to say you backed two is astounding. The European Research Council (ERC) can make just such a claim, having decided to award research funding to Serge Haroche, joint winner of the 2012 physics prize, and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the physics prize in 2010.

What makes its Nobel success even more impressive is the ERC was formed only five years ago. Since then, it has demonstrated a determination to fund only the very best research.

Winning an ERC grant is now viewed across Europe as an indication of the quality of the science and of the researcher. For this reason, universities and organisations here, such as Science Foundation Ireland and the Irish Research Council, are encouraging more applicants for ERC awards.

Prof David Lloyd, Trinity College Dublin’s director of strategic innovation, describes the ERC grants as “critically important . . . They validate our international excellence in research and that is an attractor not only for other excellent international researchers to come and work alongside peers in Ireland, but also for companies who want to work with the very best people,” he says.

They also represent a form of foreign direct investment, he argues. The funding is used for goods and services here and “ is every bit as important as any euro secured by the IDA in landing corporate investment”.

Council grants represent “the gold standard for scientists in Europe”, says ERC president Prof Helga Nowotny. “Particularly for young researchers, ERC funding offers a unique opportunity to gain international recognition,” she says.

“The ERC is not only another science-funding programme – it is the best source of funding in terms of prestige and grant value,” says Dr Graeme Horley, national contact point for the council at Science Foundation Ireland. “It is seen as the elite funding programme in Europe for fostering research.”

Applicant success rates tend to be in the 10-15 per cent range. “It is a very competitive call,” Horley says. This may put off potential applicants and Nowotny has already indicated that Ireland’s application rates run below the EU average, although there were signs of improvement, particularly in the starter grant area, she added.

The ERC had €7.5 billion to spend under the EU’s Framework Programme 7 research budget. It will invest a whopping €1.8 billion during 2013 alone, after which its budget could jump to as high as €13.2 billion under the new Horizon 2020 budget.

Given the potential for cuts in Ireland’s 2013 science budget, Irish scientists should increasingly look to the ERC as an alternative source of support for research. Unfortunately, application rates have been low. “Our job is to try and increase them. Awareness is a key aspect,” Dr Horley says.

The four scientists highlighted here are the latest recipients for starter awards. Since 2007, 22 starter awards and six advanced awards have been given to recipients in Ireland. There is an international aspect to these, with eight grants here awarded to non-Irish nationals, including the American Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman.

SFI has decided to up the ante, and has promised to support any ERC applicant from any country who has reached the final stages of ERC assessment but has failed to win a grant. It will give 50 per cent of the funding applied for or €500,000, whichever is smaller over two years, with the object being to help the applicant leverage an ERC award down stream.

For more information, see research.ie, erc.europa.eu

Prof Emma Teeling

University College Dublin school of biological and environmental sciences and director of the Centre for Irish Bat Research

Bats aren’t everyone’s favourite creature but they have an amazing secret that could prove important for us. They enjoy remarkably long lives and Prof Teeling wants to learn how they accomplish this feat.

“What we are trying to understand is why bats don’t seem to age,” she says. The oldest bat known lived until a ripe old age of 42 years. This might not seem so impressive but there is a strong correlation between the size of mammal and longevity, and this bat would be equivalent to a human reaching 229 years.

“It is shocking that they can be so old because they are so small. Small mammals live fast and die young,” she says.

Of the 19 most long-lived mammal species relative to size, 18 are bats. The other is a naked mole rat. Bats should not be able to do this given the fact that they expend three times more energy over their lifetimes than we do, yet this doesn’t seem to make the m age.

Teeling is going to compare genomes across a range of mammals, to look for genes associated with longevity, and she will compare these against bat species.

Prof Stefano Sanvito

Deputy director of the Crann nanotech research centre, director of the computational spintronics group at Trinity College Dublin

We all know about silicon and its use in electronics, but Prof Stefano Sanvito is trying to find a different way. He is searching for alternatives to silicon using organic chemicals. His work focuses on something very basic, the movement of electrons through a substance. All simplicity ends, however, when you enter the complex world of the very small, where quantum mechanics dictates behaviour.

Sanvito adds to the complexity by studying electron flow through organic crystals. The ultimate goal is to develop organic semiconductors to make new kinds of sensors and transistors. “There are a lot of applications where silicon is not good, for example in flexible applications,” he says.

He models materials to understand their characteristics and these can then be made at Crann. He wants to use organics because they are cheaper to make, formed at much lower temperatures. They also come in such variety and are more readily recycled.

Prof Aoife McLysaght

Head of the molecular evolution group within the School of Genetics and Microbiology at Trinity College Dublin

Sometimes to understand where you are now you have to look back and see where you have been. This is the approach being taken by Prof Aoife McLysaght in her efforts to understand changes in our genes.

She and her team are studying how new genes can emerge and others are lost. Our genes are constantly copied and it is commonplace for a different number of copies of a gene to arise. “When you have that kind of variation lots of genes get copied,” she says. Yet inappropriate gene copying is linked to neurological disorders, autism and schizophrenia.

McLysaght is studying gene copying and deletion by looking back through evolutionary history to find the essential gene changes. “When you see genes that don’t deplete or patterns of balanced depletion these can be important,” she says. “We will look at depletions over evolutionary time.” This, she says, is comparative genomics, matching up the human genome against other primates, fish and invertebrates.

Prof Debra Laefer

Lecturer in University College Dublin’s School of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering and Architecture, and principal investigator in the urban modelling group

For most of us, an underground tunnel is a horizontal hole in the ground. To an engineer, it is something quite different. “When you tunnel you move the ground and when you move the ground you move the buildings, and when you move the buildings you damage them,” Prof Debra Laefer explains.

This simple logic was not fully exploited when the Dublin Port Tunnel was bored. One in eight of the buildings above the tunnel excavation sustained damage that had to be fixed, a “pretty spectacular” example of what not to do, she says.

Her research aims to prevent this by developing a 3D modelling system that can predict what buildings are most likely to sustain damage during tunnelling. This means resources could be directed towards those most at risk.

The work involves the use of mathematical models along with aerial data to make these predictions, for use by engineers when planning a route.

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