Eight Irish researchers bag starter grants from European Research Council

10 Jan 2022

Dr Aisling McMahon. Image: Maynooth University

Irish researchers will get up to €12m from the European Research Council, whose president said the fund will cement Europe as a ‘scientific powerhouse’.

The European Research Council (ERC) has awarded its first research grants under Horizon Europe. Almost 400 researchers have been awarded a total of €619m.

The grants are worth, on average, around €1.5m per researcher. The selected proposals cover a wide range of disciplines, from the medical applications of AI, to the science of controlling matter by using light, to designing a legal regime for fair influencer marketing.

Female researchers won around 43pc of grants, an increase from 37pc in 2020 and the highest share for such funding to date.

Among those funded were eight Irish researchers awarded starter grants totalling around €12m in funding.

“The 2021 ERC Starting Grants were the most competitive in history so it is particularly impressive to see Ireland double its number of awardees from 2020 to 2021 in this highly prestigious programme,” said Dr Ciarán Seoighe, deputy director general of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Welcoming the outcome of the call for Ireland, Dr Gráinne Walshe, assistant director of the Irish Research Council said: “European Research Council 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.”

Maynooth University

Maynooth University’s Dr Aisling McMahon has been awarded a ERC grant worth €1.5m for the PatentsInHumans project.

McMahon said the grant will allow her to develop a “much-needed analysis of the bioethical implications posed by patents over technologies related to the human body”. She will lead a team of four researchers on the project.

“Under the current European patent system, the human body itself is not patentable,” McMahon explained. “However, many technologies that relate to the human body, such as medicines, isolated human genes and medical devices are patentable. 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.

“This project aims to understand and bridge the disconnect between bioethics and patent law and ultimately, to reimagine European patent decision-making to incorporate bioethical considerations within it.”

University College Cork

Three University College Cork (UCC) researchers have been awarded €4.75m in funding.

Dr Maria Rodriguez Aburto’s Radiogut project, which received €1.75m, examines the relationship between the brain and the gut and could have groundbreaking implications for neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, as well as precision medicine. Her project builds on her research at APC Microbiome Ireland and UCC’s Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience.

Dr Piotr Kowalski, who was awarded €1.5m for his project Circle, is developing a circular RNA technology and new delivery methods. His aim is to tackle unmet medical challenges such as sepsis, which kills 11m every year and is the cause of one in five deaths worldwide.

“As evidenced by the recent success of the mRNA-based vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, 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,” Kowalski commented.

Dr Lijuan Qian’s project ECura was awarded €1.5m. It examines how indigenous cultures are widely threatened worldwide through cultural imperialism, situations of technological change and political and economic disadvantage. Working with remote communities in China, Qian’s research will examine how members of these communities can overcome the challenges they face by adopting new digital media technologies to sustain their languages, traditional songs, music and dances.

Commenting on the funding, Qian said that it would “provide a testing ground for a new model that could have widespread application in minority cultures worldwide”.

University of Limerick

A senior researcher at the University of Limerick School of Engineering and co-founder of the start-up Class Medical, Dr Eoghan Cunnane has been funded for his project to develop representative, reliable and reproducible in-vitro models of the human testes.

“I am thrilled to receive this award and to begin establishing my own independent research group,” said Cunnane. “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, a molecular modelling researcher at SFI research centre SSPC, said she is “delighted” to have been awarded a grant for her project investigating how we can make more reliable and eco-friendly electronics.

“[I] am excited to establish a world-leading research group in Ireland,” she said. “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.”

University College Dublin

ERC funding for Dr Alice Mauger, a researcher at UCD’s School of History, will enable her to lead a team conducting groundbreaking research into the experiences and representations of the Irish through the lens of alcohol and drug use.

Dr Ailise Bulfin, a researcher at the university’s School of English, Drama and Film, will use her funding in an investigation of 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 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.

Horizon Europe

This ERC funding for early-career researchers comes as part of the EU’s research and innovation programme Horizon Europe, the successor to Horizon 2020. The ERC’s total budget from 2021 to 2027 is €16bn.

This round attracted more than 4,000 proposals, which were reviewed by panels of experienced researchers from around the world.

The laureates of this grant competition proposed to carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 22 EU and associated countries, while 13 researchers previously based in the US will move to Europe on receipt of their funding.

The grants will create more than 2,000 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students, and other staff at the host institutions.

Speaking about the funding announcement, ERC president Maria Leptin said that it was important for Europe to remain a “scientific powerhouse”.

Leptin said that the investment in “young talent” in Europe and their “most innovative ideas” was vital for the region’s future, “not least with the ever-growing competition globally”.

“We must trust the young and their insights into what areas will be important tomorrow. So, I am thrilled to see these new ERC Starting Grant winners ready to cut new ground and set up their own teams,” she added.

Mariya Gabriel, European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said the “long-awaited” first round of grants would see the ERC remain “a flagship for excellent and curiosity-driven science under the Horizon Europe programme”.

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Updated, 5.32pm, 10 January 2022: This article has been updated to include more details on the Irish projects funded as they became available.

Blathnaid O’Dea was a Careers reporter at Silicon Republic until 2024.