A composite image of Professor Jin-Chong Tan, Professor Shadreck Chirikure, Professor Véronique Gouverneur, and Professor Vili Lehdonvirta. In the background is the Radcliffe Camera (an ornate, domes, circular building) against a sky with confetti raining
From left to right: Professor Jin-Chong Tan, Professor Shadreck Chirikure, Professor Véronique Gouverneur, and Professor Vili Lehdonvirta. Image credits (respectively): John Cairns; Shanghai Archaeology Forum; Stephen Cannon; Aalto University and Mikko Raskinen. Background images: Getty Images.

Four ‘outstanding research leaders’ at Oxford awarded major European Research Council grants

Four University of Oxford researchers have been awarded European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grants of up to €2.5 million each to explore their most innovative and ambitious ideas. These grants recognise leading researchers who have a proven track record of significant achievements.

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research, and the ERC Advanced Grants are amongst the most prestigious and competitive EU funding schemes. These provide leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs. The new grants, worth in total nearly €652 million, are part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme.

This latest call for proposals attracted over 1,800 applications, of which around 14% were selected for funding. The successful projects will carry out cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from life sciences and physical sciences to social sciences and humanities.

Iliana Ivanova, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education, and Youth, said: ‘To all the new ERC grantees, my heartfelt congratulations! These grants will not only support leading researchers in pushing the boundaries of knowledge, but also create some 2500 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff across Europe. This investment nurtures the next generation of brilliant minds. I look forward to seeing the resulting breakthroughs and fresh advancements in the years ahead.’

About the Oxford recipients:

Professor Shadreck Chirikure, School of Archaeology

Migration is a powerful driver of historical change and one of the most sensitive socio-political challenges of our time. The New Bantu project will generate new knowledge that could inform solutions to effectively tackle contemporary challenges with migration in Africa and globally.

Professor Shadreck Chirikure, School of Archaeology

Professor Chirikure will combine interdisciplinary scientific techniques with innovative applications of worldviews to transform our understanding of how human migration and networks shaped development in Southern Africa between 300 BCE - 1500 CE. His focus will be the Bantu people, who today represent a large ethnolinguistic group spread over a broad area of Africa. Current theory holds that, between 5,000-1,000 years ago, farming caused a population expansion, prompting a rapid north-to-south settlement of a third of Africa by Bantu farmers. However, the exact nature of this mass movement is poorly understood.

Professor Chirikure said: ‘We will conduct fieldwork in eight countries – Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe - to expand existing data sets, then apply high-resolution scientific analyses to well-dated collections (including metals, pottery, seeds, and bones) to arrive at a critical understanding of the spread of Bantu speakers and their lifeways across Southern Africa. The outcomes of the project will throw new light on Southern Africa’s development, and can serve as a model for other large-scale movements of people across the globe, such as the Yamnaya culture in Eastern Europe.’

Professor Véronique Gouverneur, Department of Chemistry

I am delighted to receive this award as it will enable my team to tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the fluorochemical sector. Our objective is to develop new chemistry to produce critically-needed fluorochemicals in a safe and clean manner directly from readily-available natural minerals and waste products.

Professor Véronique Gouverneur, Department of Chemistry

Professor Véronique Gouverneur will use the ERC Advanced Grant to develop ground-breaking new methods for fluorine chemistry that will convert naturally occurring fluorspar into critically-needed fluorine-containing molecules. Her project will apply innovative techniques she has developed that are energy-efficient and which bypass the production of dangerous hydrogen fluoride gas.

In this new work, her team will focus on creative ways to release the fluorine content of fluorspar using solid-state chemistry techniques as well as solution-based methods. With circular fluorine chemistry in mind, her team will also investigate new methods to recover the fluorine content of waste and harmful fluorochemicals for upcycling. Professor Gouverneur said: ‘Ultimately, this work will benefit the wide range of industries that depend on fluorochemicals, including polymers, agrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, and the production of lithium-ion batteries for electric cars and smartphones.’

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, Oxford Internet Institute and Department of Sociology

I am deeply grateful to the European Research Council for another opportunity to launch an investigation into a new frontier topic, and to the many colleagues who helped me shape this new research agenda.

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, Oxford Internet Institute and Department of Sociology

Professor Lehdonvirta’s research examines the politics and socio-economic implications of digital technologies. His new project will focus on the geopolitics of cloud computing, and the impacts of data being increasingly stored on “hyperscale” data centres operated by multinational cloud computing providers, rather than on users’ own devices. Whilst this concentration generates significant economies of scale and improves energy efficiency, it also creates new systemic risks and impacts international relations, as governments and economies become more reliant on infrastructures that are often situated in another country.

Professor Lehdonvirta said: ‘US and Chinese cloud providers are competing to expand their infrastructures globally, while countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere attempt to navigate this competition and retain “digital sovereignty.” For the first time, this project will map the changing geography of computation and examine how different states are attempting to shape it to their advantage. The goal is to understand how government policies interact with technology companies’ business strategies to shape global digital infrastructures—and through them global politics.’

Professor Jin-Chong Tan, Department of Engineering Science

I am pleased to receive the award and wish to thank my team members who performed the pilot studies underpinning the proposal. The findings from this project could transform the field of nanoenergy conversion, through precisely engineered resilient new materials ideal for real life applications.

Professor Jin-Chong Tan, Department of Engineering Science

Professor Tan will use his ERC Advanced Grant to explore how to engineer resilient and durable triboelectric nanogenerators that can harvest energy from the environment and day-to-day activities, then convert this into useful electrical energy. By developing novel composite materials, the project aims to solve the long-standing problem of current nanogenerators only generating low-density power outputs; a major constraint toward practical applications. Ultimately, this work could improve the performance of various applications including lightweight energy harvesters, touch-sensitive sensors in soft robots, and portable devices that can power themselves without the use of batteries.

Professor Tan said: ‘This ERC Advanced Grant will enable me and my team to discover exciting new triboelectric materials targeting a wide range of disruptive technologies. I am excited by the prospect of uncovering the hidden mechanisms behind the functioning of triboelectric generators, by leveraging innovative techniques such as nearfield nanospectroscopy and broadband nanoimaging.’

Further information about the ERC Advanced Grants can be found on the ERC website.