Bristol awarded record number of European grants for ’excellent’ science, third highest in Europe

Every year, the ERC selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any

Every year, the ERC selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based in Europe.

The University will receive €13M for globally significant research into anti-microbial resistance, artificial reproduction, futuristic materials, quantum mechanics, the philosophy of evolution and a truth taskforce to combat misinformation.

Six senior researchers from the University of Bristol have been awarded over 13M in European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants in recognition of their excellent science and potentially ground-breaking research.

This figure places the University second in the UK and third across Europe in terms of the number of ERC Advanced Grants awarded from the 2020 call. This makes 2020 the most successful year for the University of Bristol with a success rate of 32 per cent.

Of the total 209 awards made, worth 507 million, 51 awards will be hosted within the UK followed by Germany (40) and France (22).

The ERC’s Advanced Grant scheme supports exceptional researchers, leaders in their field, in undertaking ambitious and innovative research projects. These grants were awarded under the ’excellent science’ pillar of Horizon 2020.

The awardees, representing five faculties at the University of Bristol, will pioneer research on a wide range of topics across disciplines as diverse as; artificial reproductive technology, quantum mechanics, the development of a new class of metamaterials, theoretical and computational chemistry, addressing and understanding contemporary misinformation, and examining how biological evolution has been represented in scientific literature.

“The sole criterion for a European Research Council Advanced Grant is excellence and these awards recognise those with a track-record of outstanding research achievements. The University of Bristol has done extraordinarily well to have been awarded six of these prestigious awards in a single round. The combined value of the six awards to Bristol is more than 13M, enabling these individuals to pursue their ground-breaking research for which the University is renowned.

“The UK has full access to Horizon Europe, the successor framework programme to Horizon 2020, and the ERC Advanced Grant 2021 will be launched shortly. I encourage individuals to consider applying to this and other Horizon Europe schemes, to take advantage of the opportunity this 95.5 billion funding offers," said Professor Philip Taylor, Pro Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise.

University of Bristol recipients of the ERC Advanced Grants 2020 are:

Professor Deborah Lawlor , Bristol Medical School, Faculty of Health Sciences
’Conception by artificial reproductive technologies and offspring health’ (ART-HEALTH):

Infertility affects one in six couples, and artificial reproductive technologies (ART) now account for over 8 million births worldwide. With the large number of ART births, and since ART is now perceived as a routine effective treatment, research into possible adverse effects on maternal and offspring health has been identified as an essential priority. ART-HEALTH will integrate evidence from diverse sources and using diverse methods to support a valid approach to determining long-term effects of ART.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky , School of Psychological Science, Faculty of Life Sciences
’Protecting the Democratic Information Space in Europe’ (PRODEMINFO)

A truth taskforce is set to combat misinformation and champion democracy in Europe. Professor Lewandowsky will lead the 2.5m Euro project which aims to gain a greater understanding of people’s perception of truth in an age rife with fake news and conspiracy theories. The research will more clearly identify the scale and subject matter of this so-called ’infodemic’, which involves issues such as anti-vaccination misinformation and disregard for other protective health measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as hate speech.

Previous studies have shown how social media is a tool exploited by politicians to share false, potentially dangerous information, in the guise of authenticity. This project will be the first to examine more than 10,000 tweets in various languages, including English, German, French, Spanish, and Hungarian, and test different techniques depending on the individual’s views of truth to challenge and redress falsehoods.

The investigations will result in the development of sophisticated interventions to expose inaccurate information, raise awareness of the facts, and promote democratic freedom.

Professor Adrian Mulholland , School of Chemistry, Faculty of Science
’Predictive computational models for Enzyme Dynamics, Antimicrobial resistance, Catalysis and Thermoadaptation for Evolution and Design’ (PREDACTED):

The project will focus on modelling enzymes - biological catalysts - and using simulations to understand and predict how they work. This will include enzymes involved in antibiotic resistance (in collaboration with Professor Jim Spencer in Cellular and Molecular Mecicine, whose group carries out experiments on these enzymes). The team will model chemical reactions (e.g. the breakdown of antibiotics) in enzymes. The simulations will analyse why some bacterial enzymes are able to break down particular antibiotics while others cannot. This sort of understanding should help in understanding the evolution of antibiotic resistance and in the development of enzyme inhibitors to combat it. The researchers will also work on enzyme design and understanding how evolution adapts enzymes to work at high or low temperatures.

Professor Samir Okasha , Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts
’Representing Evolution’ (REVOLT)

The aim of this inter-disciplinary project is to examine how biological evolution has been represented - diagrammatically, linguistically and mathematically - in the scientific literature, past and present. A further aim is to examine representations of evolution in the context of pedagogy and science communication. The project will bring together philosophical ideas about the nature of representation and idealization, linguistic ideas about metaphor and analogy, psychological ideas about reasoning and cognitive biases, and educational ideas about science communication.

Professor Sandu Popescu , School of Physics, Faculty of Science
’Fundamental Limits of Quantum Mechanics and Physical Laws in a Non-deterministic World’ (FLQuant)

Quantum mechanics - the theory that describes the behaviour of microscopic particles - is fundamentally different from all that came before it in almost every aspect, and even after almost 100 years, we lack a deep understanding of it. The vision of this project is that there is one property that stands out when we try to understand what quantum mechanics is all about: it is the first theory of Nature that is non-deterministic at a fundamental level. It is non-determinism that enables new freedoms, that cannot occur in a deterministic universe. One such important freedom is nonlocality, where microscopic particles that have interacted in the past remain in some sense connected, no matter how far apart they are separated. The aim of this project is to explore the full range of freedoms allowed by quantum mechanics, including exotics effects in which the future can affect the past, evolutions with both initial and final boundary conditions as well as novel aspects of conservation laws and thermodynamics.

Professor Fabrizio Scarpa , Department of Aerospace Engineering, Faculty of Engineering
’Natural nEUROactive Mechanical mETAmaterials’ (NEUROMETA)

This project aims to build futuristic classes of materials all made from natural, bio-based resources and mimicking in simple ways how the human brain memory works to adapt their shape and performances to different loading and environmental conditions.

During the last decade metamaterials have been developed to increase energy absorption during impact (helmet and cot liners to decrease the risk of traumatic brain injury), comfort for shoes and internal prosthesis for implants and morphing of aircraft structures.

An ambition of NEUROMETA is to use natural fibres from resources existing in UK, Europe, South America, Asia and Africa to produce these paradigmatic metamaterials locally and in a sustainable way.

Professor Scarpa will be working with Professor Adam Perriman from the University of Bristol’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Professor Bipin Kumar from the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi.

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