Number of the Month: 10 years
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- Strengthening top-level research in Europe is one of the goals of the ERC.
The ERC has been supporting ambitious and excellent top-level research in the European Union since 2007. Funding comes courtesy of the "Horizon 2020" Framework Programme for Research and Innovation. Around 6,500 projects have been financed in the 10 years since the European Research Council (ERC) was established. A learning platform for trainee police officers, improved drugs for cancer therapy and mathematical models for medical diagnoses are just three of the numerous exciting projects that the ERC has funded. We present these three examples from Germany, which also illustrate the diversity of the European research landscape:
1. Learning to treat victims’ families with sensitivity
Conveying news of a death is one of the toughest duties a police officer will face. How does one tell a mother or father that their child has died? The news itself is awful enough, but how can police officers avoid adding to the trauma by communicating the information in an insensitive way? In many cases the officers entrusted with the task are unable to cope. Professor Kirsten Mahlke outlines the problem: "This issue tends to be neglected because it does not fit in with the image of police work. The police are responsible for investigating the circumstances that led to the incident and for securing the scene of the crime or accident, and overlook the importance of protecting the victim’s family. Professional counsellors with soft skills such as communicative abilities and empathy should be on hand to provide support at the scene". And yet police officers are usually the first people with whom family members come into contact – before counsellors arrive to take over.
Electronic teaching module for trainee police officers
A cultural studies expert at the University of Konstanz, Professor Mahlke wants to teach trainee police officers how to convey the news of someone’s death in a responsible manner. She is engaged in a project to develop an electronic teaching module for trainee police officers that is designed to prepare future police officers for this emotionally challenging task. Her project is being funded by the ERC. Kirsten Mahlke was awarded a "Proof of Concept Grant" for her research work, providing her with the funding she needs to realise the learning platform for trainee police officers.
2. Improving cancer therapy
Even though his research is in an entirely different area, Professor Wilfried Weber also received a "Proof of Concept Grant" – the research funding provided by the ERC is wide-ranging and encompasses all disciplines. A professor of synthetic biology at Freiburg, Professor Weber is hoping to improve cancer therapy drugs in his "Hide and Seek with Cancer Drugs" project.
Cytostatic drugs are the central focus of the research work. Forming an important part of chemotherapy, cytostatic agents stop cells from growing and multiplying quickly – such as malign tumour cells. The downside is that they also harm healthy cells such as hair roots and cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Weber and his colleagues are hoping to improve these cytostatic drugs. Before using them on patients, they plan to place the substances in minute sacs known as liposomes. “The liposomes are given a kind of invisibility cloak that hides the active ingredients within the body”, explains Weber. "Only when patients take another harmless substance do the cytostatic agents lose their cloak: the surface of the liposomes is revealed and the tumour cells can find and absorb the cytostatic drugs." Thanks to the ERC funding, Weber and his team can put their idea to the test, among other things in animal experiments.
3. Bringing mathematics and medicine together
The idea that mathematics professor Sebastian Sager has come up with is similarly ground-breaking. A researcher at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg, he works on mathematical solutions which help doctors to make diagnostic and therapy decisions and has the support of an "ERC Consolidator Grant". "Every day, doctors have to take urgent and important decisions quickly. Cardiologists have to use an ECG to decide within a matter of minutes on the possible causes of irregularities, while oncologists use laboratory markers to determine the dosage and duration of chemotherapy", explains Sebastian Sager.
A decision-making aid for doctors
As a rule, doctors take these complex decisions on the basis of the expert knowledge they have acquired over many years. Such expertise is not available to all patients, however, and cannot be simply passed on from one doctor to another. "On the other hand, hospitals and doctors’ surgeries collect vast quantities of data which we believe are insufficiently used for medical decisions. We hope that our mathematical models will allow this data to be used in all its complexity, while at the same time highlighting the essential information. We intend to develop software that can handle this huge volume of data and provide doctors with fact-based and comprehensible support in their decision-making process."
Whether it is a question of training concepts for police officers, an improved cancer therapy or mathematical models for advanced medical diagnostics, the spectrum of projects funded by the ERC is broad. The target group is also wide-ranging: scientists and academics in all disciplines and of all nationalities are eligible for funding so long as they wish to pursue their project in Europe. It is also clear after ten years of successful funding that the scientific impetus generated by the projects is considerable.
Key facts about ERC funding
Who is eligible for funding from the ERC?
- Outstanding individual researchers of any nationality who wish to pursue their research project in Europe.
How do researchers benefit from the funding?
- The "ERC Grants" enable researchers to put together a team of their own choice and spend several years pursuing ground-breaking research.
- Applicants can receive up to 3.5 million euros.
- Grants are available for younger researchers (who have completed their PhD just two years or more previously) and more established researchers.
- The "Proof of Concept Grants" provide funding for researchers who have already received an "ERC Grant". The ERC helps them bring their idea to the market.