Hub 10: European Research Council
Frontier research to fight COVID-19
The session "Frontier research to fight COVID-19" brought together four scientists, Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia, Meike Bartels, Vincenzo Cerullo and Sunetra Gupta, to discuss how their ERC-funded research may help to counteract the COVID 19 pandemic. From the outset, only one of these projects addressed a topic that would immediately seem relevant for COVID 19, namely Sunetra Gupta’s research on the „Evolution of Pathogen and Host Diversity“ in the context of infectious diseases. But ultimately, all four projects appear to hold much promise for new avenues to tackle the manifold challenges posed by the pandemic. The theoretical approaches undertaken by Sunetra Gupta and her team aim at unravelling how viruses can effectively targeted by vaccines – by understanding the “targets“, the so-called virus epitopes, better. It seems that there are not that many targets offered by SARS-COV2, compared e.g. to influenza viruses. In other words, SARS-COV2 has much fewer “shirts in its wardrobe“ – which may ultimately enable a vaccine targeting all SARS-COV-strains. Vincenzo Cerullos project started from a very different angle – he leads a group investigating how the immune system can be prompted to efficiently attack cancer cells. Using adenoviruses decorated with tumor particles (tumor-specific antigens), a strong immune response against both the virus and the tumor can be elicited. When COVID-19 struck, the research question was asked in reverse: How can this approach be employed to develop a stronger immune response against viruses? Collaborations with pharmaceutical companies have meanwhile been initiated.
The fight against COVID-19 would also be faciliated if the virus could be detected by microscopes (or more precisely: nanoscopes) affordable for every laboratory in the world rather than very expensive, specialized equipment. Building also on an ERC Proof of Cocept grant aiming at “affordable photonic-chip based optical nanoscopy“, Balpreet Singh Ahluwalia and his team geared up their efforts in response to the pandemic. And by teaming up with other groups, the cost of visualizing SARS-COV2 could be reduced 10-fold, down to less than 20.000 US Dollars.
Again, a very different perspective is offered by Meike Bartels‘ ERC project, which sets out to understand why some people do not only cope better with crises, but even seem to thrive in such situations. The COVID-19 outbreak prompted adaptations in the surveys to be conducted by the project – and now, longitudinal data both for “normal“ and “pandemic“ times are available for anaylysis: How does the interplay between genome and environment work in this context? Can we learn from persons who do better under difficult circumtances? Can we understand what makes them more resilient?
#EUFUNDED: Challenges and best practices of public engagement with research
This session brought a lively exchange on challenges and best practices of public engagement with research. The stage was set by Kate Morris, representing the Irish University Association (IUA), who shared the IUAs vision of building a framework for public engagement with research, covering the full range of science: from bottom-up frontier research to mission-oriented research. She advocated a “change of course“, based on the need to bring the users of research results into the research process, in order to support trust in science and a “culture of evidence“. She also highlighted the guide “A framework for engaged research“, developed by the IUA, as a resource to support scientists in planning their public engagement activities – which is best done at an early stage of planning the research project.
The three winners of the first ERC Public Engagement with Research Award, Erik Van Sebille (Utrecht University), Anna Davis (Trinity College Dublin) and Kostas Nikolopoulous (University of Birmingham) then shared their personal experiences, which came across as very rewarding. The engagement with stakeholders was not always planned to that extent initially, but for instance emerged due to the need to assemble comprehensible and solid data, as witnessed by Anna Davis‘ ERC project Sharecity, which analyses Food Sharing systems in 100 cities. Engaging with practicioners, e.g. via social media, enlarged their dataset to 4.000 initiatives, and brought a valuable co-design-approach to the project.
Kostas Nikopoulous, on the other hand, working on the Higgs Boson in the ERC project ExclusiveHiggs, was also looking at ways to overcome stereotypes on researchers in general and particle physics in particular. Collaborating with an artist and a choreographer, he experienced how art can be instrumental in achieving this and inspire the public in exhibitions and performances.
Debunking myths is also a central element of the ERC project Tracking Of Plastic In Our Seas, led by Erik Van Sebille. Its central aim is to find out where 99% of this plastic waste actually are located – because they are not, as commonly believed, floating on as big islands of waste on the sea. Are they in the deep sea, are they ingested by animals? The web platform established within the Oceanograpy project serves as instrument to engage the public and raise awareness on this huge gap in knowledge, which needs to be closed in order to find effective ways of cleaning up the oceans.
The researchers all agreed that public engagement is rewarding, but clearly, it also involves considerably effort, which should be kept in mind by researchers and funders alike. Also, the question on how public engagement activities can be made sustainable, for instance by follow-up-funding, was reflected upon.
European Research Council of the future: Creating GIANT LEAPS FOR MANKIND!
The final session of this hub, organised by Friends of the ERC and the newly launched Association of ERC grantees, discussed the importance of fundamental research for the future of humankind. Dag Rune Olsen, Rector of the University of Bergen, recalled the Open Letter launched by the Friends of the ERC to protect ERC funding in the long-term; more than 23.400 signatures have meanwhile been collected. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, Interim ERC President, stressed that the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated the need for enough room for bottom-up research: “The ERC is proof for that – actually 183 ERC projects funded before the pandemic proved to be relevant. Thus, the vision and anticipation by researchers is critical.“ Karen Roelofs, Vice Chair of the freshly hatched Association of ERC Grantees regards the ERC as the „immune system of Europe“, because “an effective immune system explores its environment bottom up“, to react fast to new challenges. As it gets harder and harder to predict challenges, we need a “broad layer of fundamental science. I know, this is really hard to sell, as this is a long term vision, and populists want short-term solutions - but we have to fight for the long term vision.“ Axel Cleeremans, Chair of the Association, outlined its three main aims: First, to “connect the dots“, bringing 10 000 ERC Grantees together, to build a strong network. Second, to communicate results to the public, policy level and stakeholders, acting as “Europe‘s mindbank“. And third, the Association will seek to help scientists to submit strong ERC applications – mindful of the current unequal distribution of ERC grants across Europe.