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€2.4bn available to researchers in ERC’s largest ever grants budget

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With special allowances for researchers impacted by the pandemic, the ERC core grants will provide backing for around 1,100 proposals.

The first of the European Research Council’s (ERC) work programme 2022 grants opened yesterday (15 July) for applications from researchers working in Europe.

The details of the work programme were announced on Wednesday (14 July) and includes more than €2.4bn to fund grants for approximately 1,100 scientists and scholars in the EU and associated countries.

This is the ERC’s second work programme under Horizon Europe, which has an overall budget of €95.5bn and will run until 2027.

The ERC funding will be awarded in a series of grant competitions refereed by panels of researchers. It is intended to support projects that push the frontiers of human knowledge.

Researchers of any nationality and any scientific domain are eligible, as long as they work in Europe or are willing to move from other parts of the world to do so.

“This work programme is backed by the biggest ever annual budget for ERC grants – a powerful sign of Europe’s continuing support for frontier research,” said Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for innovation, research, culture, education and youth.

“I am also delighted to see that most of the financial support is earmarked for grants for early and mid-career researchers. It is vital that we support this new generation of European talent.”

While the majority of grants will open in the last quarter of 2021, the synergy and proof-of-concept grant brackets opened yesterday (15 July).

All dates provided are subject to change, with the possibility of opening earlier or being delayed by a period of one month. Deadlines may also be extended by two months.

The ERC scientific council previously released a statement (21 April) relating to this work programme, saying it was “particularly concerned about the potential specific impact of the pandemic on the youngest members of the scientific community, in particular women.”

Towards this, researchers will be able to include details in their proposal explaining any gaps in their CV or track record that were caused by the pandemic.

The main ERC grants include starting grants, consolidator grants, advanced grants, and synergy grants. The number of research grants available in each category has increased from those last year due to the increased total budget.

Starting grants are for researchers who are beginning their own team or programme and will provide up to €1.5m in funds, with the potential for €1m additional funding over a period of five years.

There are 502 grants available under the scheme, with calls due to open on 23 September.

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Consolidator grants are also for researchers in the earlier stages of their career and will support principal investigators who are solidifying their research teams or programmes.

The funding here clocks in at up to €2m, with €1m available once again as additional funding over the five-year period. These grants will open slightly later on 19 October, with 388 positions on offer.

For researchers who are firmly established within their field, there is more money on the table for individual teams in the form of advanced grants. These have €2.5m available over the five years and the same €1m available in additional support.

The call for these grants will be the latest of the core group, not opening until 20 January 2022. This year’s programme will see 223 of these grants made available.

Finally, synergy grants are back on offer, after being temporarily unavailable last year due to the transition from the previous Horizon programme.

These will allow for two to four principal investigators to join forces and tackle research questions that are too large for individual teams.

The guidelines state that “transformative research funded by synergy grants should have the potential of becoming a benchmark on a global scale”, with up to €10m being granted across six years and the possibility for €4m additional funding.

The call for these is open since yesterday (15 July) and closes on 10 November. Only 33 of these group grants will be made available.

There will also be two proof-of-concept funding calls, spread across four separate deadlines. The first call is now open for €25m in grants of €150,000 each.

Then in November 2021, the ERC will open a call with €25m divided between three deadlines in February, May and September of the following year.

There are also multiple awards for public engagement with research.

The awards will recognise three ERC grantees, with a prize of €10,000 each, in the three categories: Involve for citizen science, Inspire for public outreach, and Influence for media and policy.

The competition is expected to open on 5 October 2021.

Prof Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, interim president of the ERC, commented: “I am pleased that with its 2022 work programme the ERC is again offering the full range of its grants.

“This includes synergy grants, which are especially well fitted to support interdisciplinary research, and proof of concept grants, which help ERC grantees explore the social or commercial potential of their discoveries.”

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Crypto is starting to lose its cool – just look at El Salvador | Rowan Moore

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To its evangelists, bitcoin is a frictionless, empowering form of money that liberates citizens of the world from the shackles of banks and national governments. To sceptics, the cryptocurrency is a tool of kleptocrats and gangsters, environmentally monstrous in its consumption of energy, a digitally glamorised Ponzi scheme whose eventual crash will most hurt those least able to afford a loss.

Confidence may or may not have been enhanced by the unveiling, by President Nayib Bukele, of images of a proposed bitcoin-shaped Bitcoin City in El Salvador, funded with a bitcoin bond, the currency’s logo embedded in the central plaza, a metropolis powered with geothermal energy from a nearby volcano. Bukele, the self-styled “coolest dictator in the world”, a former publicist who wears baseball caps back to front, has already made El Salvador the first country to adopt bitcoin as the official currency. “The plan is simple,” he said. “As the world falls into tyranny, we’ll create a haven for freedom.”

Leaving aside the worrisome Pompeii vibe of the city’s location, some shine has come off the president’s vision with the news that the country’s investments in cryptocurrency have lost 45% of their value, that it scores CCC with the credit rating agency Fitch, and that the perceived risk of its bonds is up there with that of war-torn Ukraine. And Bukele’s talk of freedom doesn’t sit well with Amnesty International’s claim that his recent state of emergency has created “a perfect storm of human rights violations”.

But why worry about any of this when you have shiny computer-generated images of a fantasy city to distract you?

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Boris Johnson waves his arms behind a podium with the Elizabeth line sign.
The Mayor of London Sadiq Khan looks on as Boris Johnson gives a speech at Paddington station on 17 May 2022. Photograph: Reuters

The use of constructional bluster by populist leaders – Trump’s wall, for example – is not in itself anything new. See also the island airport, garden bridge, Irish Sea bridge, 40 new hospitals and 300,000 homes a year promised but not delivered by Boris Johnson, and the nuclear power stations he has implausibly pledged to build at a rate of one a year.

Last week his fondness for Potemkin infrastructure took a new twist. Rather than over-promise illusory schemes and under-deliver them, he decided to take credit for something actually built, the £19bn Elizabeth line in London, formerly known as Crossrail, whose central section opens to the public on Tuesday. “We get the big things done,” he boasted to the House of Commons, choosing to ignore the fact that the line was initiated under a Labour prime minister and a Labour mayor of London. He almost makes Nayib Bukele look credible.

Behind the red wall

Characters from The House of Shades gather around a table on stage
Mounting misery: The House of Shades. Photograph: Helen Murray

If you want a light-hearted night out – a date, a birthday treat – then The House of Shades, a new play by Beth Steel, might not, unless you are an unusual person, be for you. It is a cross between Greek tragedy and what was once called kitchen sink drama, a story of ever-mounting misery set in a Nottinghamshire town from 1965 to 2019. It covers the collapse of manufacturing, the rise of Thatcherism, the promises of New Labour and the disillusionment that led to “red wall” seats voting Conservative in 2019.

It features illegal abortion, graphically portrayed, and the effects of inflation, both newly significant. All presented at the Almeida theatre in the famously metropolitan London borough of Islington, not far from the former restaurant where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did the 1994 deal that shaped some of the events in the play. There’s irony here to make this audience squirm. Which, along with several other not-comfortable emotions, is probably the desired effect.

Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent

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Lonestar plans to put datacenters in the Moon’s lava tubes • The Register

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Imagine a future where racks of computer servers hum quietly in darkness below the surface of the Moon.

Here is where some of the most important data is stored, to be left untouched for as long as can be. The idea sounds like something from science-fiction, but one startup that recently emerged from stealth is trying to turn it into a reality. Lonestar Data Holdings has a unique mission unlike any other cloud provider: to build datacenters on the Moon backing up the world’s data.

“It’s inconceivable to me that we are keeping our most precious assets, our knowledge and our data, on Earth, where we’re setting off bombs and burning things,” Christopher Stott, founder and CEO of Lonestar, told The Register. “We need to put our assets in place off our planet, where we can keep it safe.”

Stott said Lonestar’s efforts to build a data storage facility in space are a bit like trying to preserve all of the world’s seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located on the Norwegian Arctic island ofSpitsbergen. But instead of trying to protect crop diversity, the upstart wants to safeguard human knowledge. 

“If we don’t do this, what will happen to our data on Earth?,” he asked. “The seed bank flooded due to effects of climate change. It’s also susceptible to other forms of destruction like war or cyber attacks. We need to have somewhere we can keep our data safe.” Lonestar has its sights set on the Moon.

One side of our bigger natural satellite is tidally locked and constantly faces Earth, meaning it would be possible to set up a constant, direct line-of-sight communication between devices on the Moon and our planet.

Lonestar is currently closing its $5m seed round from investors like Seldor Capital and 2 Future Holding. To raise more money, it’ll have to prove its technology is feasible and will start with small demos on commercial lunar payloads. Last month, it announced it had signed contracts to launch prototype demonstrations of its software and hardware capabilities aboard two lunar landers with NASA-funded aerospace biz Intuitive Machines.

Under the space agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, Intuitive Machines will, after some delay, send its Nova-C lander to the Moon for its first mission, dubbed IM-1, at the end of 2022. Lonestar will run a software-only test, storing a small bit of data on the lander’s hardware. IM-1 is expected to last one lunar day, an equivalent of two weeks on Earth. 

The second launch, IM-2, is more ambitious. Intuitive Machines plans to send another Nova-C lander to the Moon’s South Pole carrying various bits of equipment, including NASA’s PRIME-1 drill for ice and a spectrometer as well as Lonestar’s first hardware prototype: a one-kilogram storage device, the size of a hardback novel, with 16 terabytes of memory. IM-2’s is expected to launch in 2023.

Robots and lava tubes

The tiny proof-of-concept datacenter will be storing immutable data for Lonestar’s early beta of its so-called Disaster Recovery as a Service (DRaaS), Stott told us. “[We will be] performing upload and download tests (think refresh and restore of data), and performing edge processing tests of apps as well. It will be running Ubuntu.” The company is still in the process of determining bandwidth rates, and has secured permissions to transmit data to the Moon and back to Earth in the S, X, and Ka-Bands in the radio spectrum.

Lonestar’s opportunity to test its technology on the Moon for the first time will depend on whether Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C landers successfully make it to the lunar surface in one piece. Soft landings on the Moon are notoriously difficult; numerous endeavors from the Soviets and the US in the Sixties have ended in failure. The last two attempts that ended badly were in 2019, when Israel’s SpaceIL and India’s National Space agency’s respectively crashed their Beresheet and Chandrayaan-2 lunar landers.

The strong gravitational pull of the Moon and its very thin atmosphere means the speeds at which spacecraft approach the surface have to be considerably slowed in a short amount of time to land gently. Nailing the landing process is key to lunar exploration, whether it’s sending robotic spacecraft or a crew of astronauts. 

“Our turnkey solution for delivering, communicating, and commanding customer payloads on and around the Moon is revolutionary,” Intuitive’s president and CEO, Steve Altemus, told us in a statement. “Adding Lonestar Data Holdings and other commercial payloads to our lunar missions are critical steps toward Intuitive Machines creating and defining the lunar economy.”

The path from a book-sized prototype to real fully fledged cloud storage datacenters, however, is handwavy. Stott said Lonestar has plans for future missions to launch servers capable of holding five petabytes of data in 2024, and 50 petabytes of data by 2026. By then, he hopes the datacenter will be able to host data traffic to and from the Moon at rates of 15 Gigabits per second – much faster than home internet broadband speeds – beamed from a series of antennas. 

If the company is to continue scaling and storing data long-term, it’ll have to figure out how to protect its datacenters from cosmic radiation and deal with the Moon’s fluctuating surface temperatures, which can go from a scorching 222.8°F (106°C) during the day to a -297.4°F (-183°C) at night.

Stott has an answer for that: nestle the datacenters in lunar lava tubes, cavernous pits bored below the surface of the Moon by the flow of ancient basaltic lava. Inside these pits, the temperature will be steadier and the servers will be better shielded from harmful electromagnetic rays.

And how will the Lonestar get them down there? “Robots… lots of robots,” Stott said. ®

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Here are the Royal Irish Academy’s newest members from STEM

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14 of the 29 new members being welcomed by the Royal Irish Academy this year are from STEM. We take a quick look at what they do.

Every year, the Royal Irish Academy admits new members to its prestigious roster of researchers from across the island of Ireland for their exceptional contributions to the sciences, humanities, social sciences and public service.

This year, the 236-year-old institution has elected 29 new members from universities and bodies across Ireland, officially welcoming 24 of them at its Admittance Day event held in Dublin today (20 May).

Future Human

“We are immensely proud of these 29 new members who we are recognising today for their scholarly achievements, their research and international distinction or for significant contributions to Irish society,” said Dr Mary Canning, president of the Royal Irish Academy.

“As new members of the Academy, they will contribute to and strengthen our capacity to provide expert advice on higher education and research policy.”

Here we take a quick look at 14 new members who have a background in STEM-related fields.

Linda Doyle, TCD

Doyle made history by becoming the first woman provost of Trinity College Dublin in its 429-year history last year. Before that she was a professor of engineering and the arts at Trinity and the university’s dean of research from 2018.

Geraldine Boylan, UCC

A former Science Foundation Ireland Researcher of the Year, Boylan is the director of the Infant research centre for maternal and child health research and professor of neonatal physiology at University College Cork.

Mary Cannon, RCSI

Cannon is a consultant psychiatrist and professor of psychiatric epidemiology and youth mental health at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. She is a leading researcher in the area of youth mental health and childhood and adolescent risk factors for mental illness.

Rónadh Cox, Williams College

One of this year’s five honorary members, Cox is the Brust Professor of Geology and Mineralogy at Williams College, Massachusetts. She is prominent internationally within the coastal erosion and geomorphology community.

Marie Donnelly, Climate Change Advisory Council

Donnelly is the only new member in this list not associated with any university. Instead, she is the chair of the Climate Change Advisory Council. She previously worked with the European Commission for three decades.

Gary Donohoe, NUI Galway

A professor of psychology at NUI Galway, Donohoe is an internationally known researcher in the cognitive neuroscience and mental health space. His work focuses on understanding and treating factors relevant to social and occupational function.

Fiona Doohan, UCD

Doohan is a professor of plant health at University College Dublin’s School of Biology and Environmental Science. She is one of the co-founders of agricultural sustainability company CropBiome, which is one of the many high-potential start-ups backed by Enterprise Ireland.

David Jones, QUB

A professor of pharmaceutical and biomaterial engineering at Queen’s University Belfast, Jones is an internationally recognised researcher in polymer-based implanted medical devices and enhanced pharmaceutical dosage forms.

Patricia Kearney, UCC

Kearney is a professor of epidemiology in the School of Public Health at UCC. A recognised clinical triallist, her research focuses on population health and health services.

Mairead Kiely, UCC

Another researcher working in the area of health, Kiely is a professor of human nutrition at UCC. Her research focuses macronutrients, particularly vitamin D, and their impact on health and child development.

Hannah McGee, RCSI

McGee is the deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and a scholar in psychology. A former president of the European Health Psychology Society, she was also appointed as the deputy chair of Ireland’s National Research Ethics Committee for Covid-19.

James P O’Gara, NUI Galway

A professor of microbiology at NUI Galway, O’Gara’s research focuses on the mechanisms underpinning biofilm production and antimicrobial resistance in staphylococci, including MRSA.

Stefan Oscarson, UCD

Oscarson is a professor of chemical biology at UCD and an internationally known researcher in the field of carbohydrate chemistry. His synthetic work underpins the development of drug and vaccine candidates against various infectious diseases.

Patrick Wyse Jackson, TCD

Curator of the Geology Museum based in Trinity College Dublin, Jackson is also a professor of geology at the university. He is an expert on the history of Irish geology and his research focuses on fossil bryozoans – a large phylum of invertebrate animals.

10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.

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