Monday 10 January 2022: Eight Ireland-based researchers have each been awarded an average of €1.5 million in European Research Council (ERC) funding following the inaugural call for proposals, which come under Horizon Europe, the 9th EU funding programme for Research and Innovation.

Launched in late February 2021, the ERC Starting Grant funding announced today will fund transformational research in frontier science, leveraging top-tier, early career talent from across Europe and beyond to address global challenges. With a 24% increase in applications compared to the 2020 call, the 2021 ERC Starting Grant was the most competitive in ERC history, attracting over 4,000 applications. Female researchers won 43% of grants, an increase from 37% in 2020 and the highest share to date. Six of the Ireland-based awards were won by female researchers.

Spanning across all ERC domains, the eight Ireland-based awards represent a strong start in Horizon Europe after the success achieved through the last H2020 framework programme and reflects the exceptional standard of research talent in Ireland. As the National Delegate and one of the National Contact Points for ERC funding in Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) congratulated the awardees on winning this world renowned award against stiff competition, with researchers in SFI Research Centres and Individual-led SFI research programmes successfully competing for ERC funding.

Dr Ciarán Seoighe, Deputy Director General of SFI said: “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. Horizon Europe is a critical part of the funding landscape across all disciplines. Many congratulations to the eight awardees of the ERC Starting Grants. I hope Ireland-based researchers will continue to compete successfully across all programmes in the years ahead.”

The new laureates will conduct their pioneering research across University College Cork (3), University College Dublin (2), University of Limerick (2) and Maynooth University (1).

Dr Maria Aburto, a former Marie Curie Individual Fellow at the Department of Anatomy and Neuroscience, and a researcher at the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, hosted by University College Cork (UCC), said: “The ambitious RADIOGUT (Radial Glia as Neurodevelopmental Mediators Of Gut Microbiota Signals) project aims to explore how our gut microbiota (the trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut) influences host brain and behaviour during perinatal life, which is a critical window of time when the brain and the gut microbiota develop simultaneously. I am delighted to receive this prestigious funding award from the European Research Council to lead this innovative high-impact science program to tackle an important unsolved and unexplored scientific question.”

Dr Ailise Bulfin, a researcher at the University College Dublin (UCD) School of English, Drama and Film, said: “The scale of this ERC award means that my project can shed light not just on how the critical issue of child sexual abuse (CSA) is represented across the wide range of cultural works that depict it, but also on the ways that these works may affect their audiences. Throughout its conception the project has been generously supported by the insights and advice of survivors of CSA and support professionals who work with survivors. The award allows me to create knowledge that will be of benefit to these groups and to the wider community as it aims ultimately to illuminate how fictional works may shape public understandings of CSA, which in turn affect CSA prevention efforts and survivors’ health outcomes.

Dr Eoghan Cunnane, a senior researcher at the School of Engineering, University of Limerick (UL) and co-founder of the start-up company Class Medical, said: “I am thrilled to receive this award and to begin establishing my own independent research group. It is a great honour for me to join the ranks of principal investigators on this island that I have admired for so long. 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 SSPC, the SFI Research Centre for Pharmaceuticals at UL, said: “ I am delighted to be awarded this grant and am excited to establish a world-leading research group in Ireland. 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.”  

Dr Piotr Kowalski, a biomedical researcher leading a research group based at UCC’s School of Pharmacy and a researcher at the APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre, said “I am thrilled by the support from the ERC allowing me to pursue transformative and impactful research tackling unmet health challenges. RNA-based drugs are a new class of biologics on the path to becoming a major platform in drug development, as evidenced by the recent success of the mRNA-based vaccines against SARS-CoV-2.”

Dr Alice Mauger, a researcher at UCD’s School of History, said “I am exceptionally grateful and delighted to receive this ERC Starting Grant. This funding will enable me to lead a team of talented researchers from the fields of alcohol and drugs history and the history of medicine, welfare and mental health to conduct ground-breaking research into the experiences and representations of the Irish using the lens of alcohol and drug use.”

Dr Aisling McMahon, Associate Professor in Law at the Department of Law, Maynooth University, said: “I am delighted and honoured to be awarded this ERC grant. It will enable me to build a team of researchers to develop a much-needed analysis of the bioethical implications of patents over technologies related to the human body for how we treat, use and modify the body. Ultimately, its aim is to reimagine European patent decision-making to embed such bioethical considerations within it for technologies related to the body, which I hope will have important conceptual and policy impacts for human health and flourishing more generally.” 

Dr Qian Lijuan, an Irish Research Council MSCA COFUND Fellow at the Department of Music, UCC, said “The rapid spread of digital media and globalized forms of entertainment brings a new threat to indigenous cultures. Working alongside musicians and cultural activists in China, I'll be researching how ethnic minority villagers can overcome this challenge through using mobile phones to sustain their languages, traditional songs, music and dances into the digital age. The award will be transformational in allowing me to see a long-term project through from initial set-up all the way to the measurement of social impact.”