Multi-million pound European grants for four ‘excellent research leaders’ at University of Oxford

University of Oxford

Four leading researchers at the University of Oxford have been awarded major European Research Council Advanced Grants to fund boundary-pushing research projects in Biology, Linguistics, Mathematics and Physics.

The prestigious grants have been made after a highly-competitive process. Just 14 per cent of applications were successful this year: only 253 researchers across Europe and other territories, received awards out of more than 1,700 proposals.

The ERC announced three major Advanced Grants for leading researchers from the Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences Division. Also among Oxford’s winners is Professor Aditi Lahiri, professor of Linguistics in the Humanities Division, for whom this is a fifth major ERC award – including an Oxford record three ERC Advanced Grants.

The ERC was set up by the European Union in 2007 and is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The awards are worth up to €3.5 million (£2.9 million) over five years and will allow the researchers to build teams and develop their pioneering work.

Professor Sam Howison, Head of Oxford’s Mathematical, Physical & Life Sciences Division, said: “We are delighted with the success of our researchers in achieving this international recognition from the ERC, in an extraordinarily competitive field.

“Their work spans the natural world of trees and their inhabitants, the microscopic realm of quantum physics, and the entirely abstract sphere of mathematical analysis, illustrating the great breadth and depth of science at Oxford. I look forward to following the progress of their projects.’

Professor Dan Grimley, Head of Oxford’s Humanities Division, said: “I’m thrilled to be able to congratulate Professor Lahiri on the award of a fifth prestigious grant from the European Research Council. This international recognition is testimony not only to Professor Lahiri’s ground-breaking work, but also to her leadership in such an important and significant area of Linguistics research.”

Professor Stephen J. Blundell, Oxford Department of Physics, has been awarded an Advanced Grant to enable the development of new techniques to use muons, spin-polarised radioactive particles, to study spin liquids, exotic phases of matter in which the individual magnetic moments form a liquid-like state. The muon is a fundamental subatomic particle – one of the basic building blocks of the universe. Muons are similar to electrons, but 207 times heavier.

Professor Blundell said: “I am absolutely thrilled about the award, as it gives me the chance to develop some exciting new techniques that will use muons to learn about quantum spin liquids. I have been working with muons since I came to Oxford nearly three decades ago. Muons are amazing particles, and are the dominant constituent of cosmic rays, meaning that some are falling on you right now, like a very gentle rain, as you read your computer screen.”

Professor Aditi Lahiri, founder of Oxford’s Department of Linguistics, will receive her award for a study of pertinacity. She points out, natural languages change in time. Nevertheless, this project takes the challenging view that phonology is pertinacious and changes in existing phonological systems are strictly limited.

To examine the principle of Pertinacity, comparable phonological processes internal to individual languages as well as influences due to borrowing between languages will be examined across Germanic and Indo-Aryan language families, combining classical historical research with psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic experimentation and computational speech recognition.

Commenting on her award, Professor Lahiri said: “I am extremely grateful and deeply honoured that my peers believe in this line of research in linguistics and have supported advanced grant funding for me for the third time. I sincerely hope we will be able to retain ERC funding in this country for the sake of the next generation in humanities when academic prospects in general are so bleak.’

Professor Ben Sheldon, Luc Hoffmann Professor of Field Ornithology, Oxford Department of Zoology, has been awarded his grant to study the effect of human-caused climate change in the timing of seasonal events (phenology) – in Oxford’s own Wytham Woods.

According to Professor Sheldon, “We know that climate change is driving large scale changes in the timing of seasonal events, affecting plants and animals across the globe. But we don’t really understand how these will impact the survival and reproduction of these organisms?

“A major reason for that lack of understanding is that we have not focussed enough on the right spatial scale. This project seeks to address that by combining measures of the timing of leaf-out for hundreds of thousands of trees across Wytham Woods, and by studying the insects and birds that rely on these trees for food, we will be able to work out how much the effects of climate change are driven by effects at small and large scales.’

Professor Sheldon added: “It is wonderful news to receive such substantial long-term support particularly as it coincides with the 75th anniversary of the long-term study of great tits in Wytham Woods, celebrated this week.”

Professor Stuart White, from Oxford’s Department of Mathematics, has been awarded one of just nine ERC Advanced Grant for Mathematics for his CSTAR project.

The project focuses on the structure and classification of operator algebras. The classification questions at the heart of this proposal are for C*-algebras. These are abstract functional analytic objects, with origins in the mathematical formalism of quantum mechanics. A central theme of the research is the transfer of ideas between non-commutative measure theory and topology.

Professor White said: “I’m really honoured that this project has been selected for funding by the ERC, showing their commitment to fundamental mathematical research, and I’m really excited about building a world class team of postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in operator algebras in Oxford to deliver the goals of the project.”

ERC Advanced Grants are five-year-awards, designed to support excellent scientists and scholars in any field at the career stage when they are already established research leaders, with a recognised track record of research achievements.

The holding of ERC awards by researchers based at UK institutions is subject to formalisation of the UK’s association to Horizon Europe, which remains the stated priority for the UK government, in line with the Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed between the UK and the EU in December 2020.

In the event that association is not confirmed by the final date for signature of grant agreements then the UK government’s Horizon Europe funding guarantee will apply, with UK awardees receiving equivalent funding via UKRI.