Bold research bids earn €10.5m of EU backing

Highly coveted awards, funded by the EU to help scholars pursue ‘daring’ research ideas, have been made to seven Edinburgh academics.

The European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grants will help the recipients to build their own teams and conduct pioneering work in a range of disciplines.

The University secured €10.5m in funding, making it the second most successful institution in the UK and fourth among European universities for attracting the prestigious grants.

The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support academics in identifying new opportunities and directions in any field.

ERC Starting Grants are awarded to early career researchers of any nationality with a promising research track record and an excellent research proposal that demonstrates scientific excellence.

Three are in the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Science and four are in the College of Science & Engineering.

Ground breaking

Principal Investigators who apply must demonstrate the ground breaking nature, ambition and feasibility of their scientific proposal.

Researchers are free to direct how the Grants are used, rather than being led by priorities set by policy makers. This ensures that funds are channelled into new and promising areas of research with a greater degree of flexibility.

The UK will continue to participate in the current 2014-2020 EU programmes, including ERC Grants, as if it were an EU Member State until the closure of the programmes.

This means that UK beneficiaries can continue to take part in grants awarded under the current Multi-Annual Financial Framework until their end date, even if it is after 2020.

Five years

Starting Grants may be awarded up to €1.5 million over five years.

Former European Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, said that to meet key challenges, researchers need the right conditions to follow their curiosity.

To that end, Mr Moedas stated as he stepped down last year: “ERC grants provide an opportunity for outstanding scientists to pursue their most daring ideas.”

Epidemiological revolution

Lukas Engelmann, of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science, is to explore how epidemiology came to govern so many aspects of public life – even before Covid-19.

Epidemiology, says Dr Engelmann, has historically been a niche field in medicine, often dismissed by laboratory scientists and clinicians as an inferior discipline.

In the 20th century, however, a revolution took place as epidemiologists won the trust of policy makers and the public. The study will endeavour to find out why.

Dr Engelmann will seek to understand how epidemiologists built their arguments through modelling and narratives, how they define epidemics and what makes their expertise so appealing.

Sound restored

Michele Ducceschi, of Edinburgh College of Art, Is developing digital technology to solve a growing problem for those charged with the care of historic musical instruments.

Most instruments in museum collections have become unplayable and are deteriorating to the point that their unique sounds will eventually be lost-but now help is at hand.

Dr Ducceschi is developing advanced mathematical models to create durable and realistic digital emulations of historical instruments that are currently out of playing condition.

The work will be carried out in tandem with the University’s renowned musical instruments collection, which will make software copies of these treasured artefacts accessible online.

Fresh perspectives

Marie Legendre, of the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, offers a fresh take on a seminal period in Islamic history – one focused on the provinces not the centre of power.

Dr Legendre will provide vital insights into the early period of the revered Abbasid dynasty (750-1258) by studying Egyptian papyrus documents written in Greek, Coptic and Arabic.

Until now the preferred sources for scholars working on this period has been literary texts composed by Muslims in their capital, Baghdad, giving a top-down view of state structures.

These papyri, by contrast, are concerned with everyday arrangements for fiscal collection in secondary urban centres and villages in the Nile valley, revealing a different dynamic at play.

Randomized algorithms

Heng Guo, of the School of Informatics, is interested in theoretical computer science and discovering unseen links between different areas of research.

The award will enable Dr Guo to study computational problems that arise from stochastic systems – phenomena that appear to change in a random way.

He employs probabilistic models, which take past data to predict the possibility of an event reoccurring, to create systems that can inform decision making in the face of uncertainty.

His project will develop new algorithms and techniques to tackle related computational challenges, with an emphasis on rigorous mathematical analysis.

High stakes

Ross Howie, of the School of Physics and Astronomy, is aiming to reach – and measure the properties of – what is often referred to as the holy grail of high pressure science.

His research involves squeezing the lightest element in the universe, hydrogen, between two diamonds until it transforms from an insulating molecular gas to a metallic atomic solid.

This quest requires reaching pressure conditions that exceed those found at the centre of the Earth, and even tending towards those at the core of the gas giant planets.

It is driven by forecasts that metallic hydrogen may exhibit novel states such as room temperature superconductivity and enough energy density to make it a clean rocket fuel.

Material gains

Davide Michieletto, also of Physics and Astronomy, is seeking to shed new light on the workings of polymers found in everyday materials such as plastic and textiles

These chemical building blocks typically have fixed structures but Dr Michieletto has created novel materials made of polymers that can actively change their makeup.

To achieve this, he has taken inspiration from the DNA in our own cells, which uses sophisticated proteins that can cut and glue DNA segments to iron out entanglements.

Dr Michieletto aims to use these proteins to create materials that can disentangle complications at a stroke, and with a precision that is unthinkable with standard polymers.

Mathematical twists

Mathematician Alexander Shapiro is focused on recent developments in quantum field theory.

Dr Shapiro is concerned with the important observation that, in some cases, quantum field theory comes with a cluster structure – families of coordinates in which the laws of physics take especially simple form.

His research seeks to find such structures in a systematic way, and use them to explain surprising correspondences between different physical theories.

Dr Shapiro applied for the ERC grant while a NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, is currently at the University of Notre Dame and will be joining Edinburgh to take up the ERC award and a Royal Society University Research Fellowship.

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