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European Research Council (ERC) week: UCL celebrates funding success

13 March 2017

This week, the European Research Council (ERC) celebrates its 10th anniversary with a special ‘ERC Week’, with subsequent events taking place throughout Europe in 2017. Among the most prestigious grants in Europe, ERC funding is only awarded to academics at the frontier of research, with several Nobel laureates among past grant-holders. 

This celebration is especially timely, because UCL has just been awarded its 175th ERC grant with six new Advanced grants awarded.

O'Connell, Michaelides, Mank, Spiegler

Just two weeks ago, six academics netted a total of €15 million of funding, demonstrating the importance of the continued success of UK universities in securing EU funding post-Brexit. This builds upon several years of UCL achievement in attracting ERC grants.

Professor David Price, UCL Vice-Provost (Research), said: “Given the current uncertainties around the UK’s future relationship with Europe, I am immensely proud that UCL is punching above its weight, securing vital EU funding for hundreds of academics to carry out frontier research. It is particularly pleasing to see such a range of disciplines funded, which is testament both to the scale and breadth of talent at UCL and of the importance of a funding stream focused on excellence across the research endeavour.”

The ERC has made a significant contribution to frontier research at UCL, with funding totalling just over €283 million and accounting for 45% of all European Commission funding. How the ERC is funding research at UCL is illustrated by the experiences below:

Case studies

Dr Rebecca O’Connell
ERC Starting grant
(UCL Institute of Education)

I am a Senior Research Officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, UCL Institute of Education. My research adopts a sociological approach to understanding the food practices of children and families using a mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches. 

I am co-author, with Julia Brannen, of Food, Families and Work (2016) and principal investigator (PI) of a European Research Council funded study of Families and Food in Hard Times. 

Food poverty has risen in many European countries but there is a lack of comparative research examining how social policies and social positionings mediate differences within and between countries. 

The project adopts an embedded case study design to examine families’ experiences of food poverty in three European countries: Portugal, the UK and Norway. 

In focusing upon the experiences of children and young people (aged 11–15 years), as well as their parents, the study analyses intra- as well as inter- household variation. 

It does so not only to contribute to knowledge of childhood and family life, food studies, food ethics and poverty, but also to inform the advocacy efforts of agencies concerned with the effects of austerity on poor families and children and its consequences for health and wellbeing. 

The five-year project enables me to build on my previous mixed-methods UK research by developing expertise in directing a cross-national comparative study, co-authoring further papers in leading peer-reviewed international journals and publishing my first single authored monograph. 

I am also co-convenor of the British Sociological Association Food Study Group whose Fifthth International conference in London, June 2017, asks: ‘What is food? And how should we study it?’

Professor Angelos Michaelides
ERC Starting grant and ERC Consolidator grant
(UCL Physics & Astronomy)

With my two ERC awards, I have been striving to learn more about how the world functions at the molecular scale, helping to understand how molecules bond to surfaces, chemical reactions relevant to catalysis and the forces that hold DNA together. 

In our current project, my team is developing and applying computer simulation techniques to understand better the most important substance of all: water. 

For almost the full duration of my time at UCL, my research has been supported by ERC grants and the forerunner to the ERC Starting Grant, namely a European Young Investigator Award. 

This sort of sustained medium-term funding has enabled me and many others at UCL to build and maintain world-class research groups. I shudder to think what the future holds for UK science if we no longer have access to ERC funding. 

Professor Judith Mank
ERC Starting grant and ERC Consolidator grant
(UCL Genetics, Evolution & Environment) 

I’m an evolutionary geneticist and I study how selection pressures generate the diversity that we observe in animals. 

I was awarded an ERC starter grant shortly after I formed my own group. It transformed my research by allowing me to tackle a large problem, how and why males and females in a species often look and act very different. 

As the grant was more than generous, I was able to stop applying for research funds for several years, explore higher risk questions and generate a cohesive understanding of how differences between the sexes are encoded by a single shared genome. 

I was recently awarded an ERC consolidator grant, which officially started the day after my starter grant ended. The new grant allowed me to change study systems and to focus on new questions related to how evolution acts differently on males and females. 

We are just getting started on it, but I hope to answer questions about why sex chromosomes form and how males and females adapt separately to their environments.

Professor Ran Spiegler
ERC Advanced grant and ERC Advanced grant
(UCL Economics)

I am an economic theorist. Most of my research involves models of decision making that capture elements of bounded rationality (or “richer psychology” in general) and incorporate them in economic environments. 

In the previous decade, I mainly worked on so-called “behavioural industrial organisation”: market models in which consumers are less than fully rational. 

This project was supported by an earlier Advanced Investigator ERC grant; one of its fruits was a graduate-level textbook called Bounded Rationality and Industrial Organization.

My current ERC-funded project (titled ‘Bayesian networks and non-rational expectations’) develops a theoretical framework for modelling decision makers whose expectations reflect an imperfect understanding of statistical regularities and causal relations. 

The conventional “rational expectations” postulate presumes that economic agents fully understand statistical regularities in their environment. Economists have become increasingly interested in models that relax this assumption. 

My approach borrows concepts and techniques from the statistics/AI literature on probabilistic graphical models. I assume that decision makers rely on mis-specified subjective causal models (formalised as directed acyclic graphs) to form beliefs. 

This enables me to capture various errors in causal and statistical reasoning – confusing correlation with causation, getting the direction of causality wrong, neglecting confounding variables – and explore their implications for economic interactions, in settings such as monetary policy or speculative trade in financial markets.

Beyond its obvious help in freeing time for research and providing financial support for project-related activities, this ERC grant has a special significance for me. 

When I started thinking about this project, I realised it was highly speculative and risky, and certainly one for the long haul. It is easy to lose one’s self-confidence and sense of direction when working on such a project. In this context, the grant feels like a welcome vote of confidence. 

In an environment where economists are increasingly required to justify their work in immediate, policy-related terms, the grant seems to say that there is still room for speculative, individualistic, basic science endeavours.

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