300 researchers awarded 2 million euros each by European funding body

Freedom from writing grant applications-every researcher’s dream, and one that has come true for Jerusalem-based chemist Assaf Friedler as a result of winning one of the European Research Council’s (ERC) prestigious grants for young researchers. 

Friedler, 36, of the department of organic chemistry at Hebrew University in Israel, is one of 300 academics who will receive up to 2 million euros in research funding over five years as part of the ERC’s Starting Independent Investigators programme. In addition to EU nations, researchers based in 8 ’associated nations’ - such as Israel, Switzerland and Turkey - are also eligible for the grants, the first from the newly formed funding body. 

Friedler, whose team uses an interdisciplinary approach that combines peptide chemistry, protein biochemistry and biophysical studies to develop cancer and virus fighting drugs, told Chemistry World that the exact amount of his grant has not yet been determined. But he and four colleagues at Hebrew University will split 6.38 million euros between them. 

’The ERC grant will enable me to develop and upgrade my lab and to focus solely on my research,’ he said. ’This will release me from writing many grant applications, which is time consuming. Most importantly, I will use about half of the money to purchase equipment such as an ITC (isothermal titration calorimeter), analytical ultracentrifuge and microwave-assisted peptide synthesizer, which are currently unavailable at our university.’ 

Friedler spent four years in the UK doing post-doctoral work at the MRC Centre for Protein Engineering in Cambridge, headed by Alan Fersht. ’It was an amazing lab, with access to every possible biophysical instrument and technique, and most importantly - wide expertise in various fields of protein chemistry, biophysical chemistry and biochemistry,’ he said. ’In my independent lab in Israel I try to apply what I learnt in Cambridge in terms of scientific attitude and thinking.’ 

The ERC does not plan to issue a full list of winners and a detailed account of funding until at least late January, according to an ERC spokeswoman. A few names of winners have trickled out, mainly through press releases issued by universities that were tipped off by their awardees. But the ERC has released some general information about the grants, showing that 6 per cent of the 300 winners have PhDs in condensed matter physics and chemistry and 8 per cent in material and chemical sciences. That would indicate that at least three dozen chemists are among the winners, probably more, as some of the biological and life sciences projects likely include chemists. 

The 300 winners have an average age of 35 and 26 per cent are women. They represent more than 32 nationalities based in about 170 host institutions in 21 nations. The UK is home to nearly 20 per cent of the host institutions, followed by France with about 13 per cent and Germany with 11 per cent. However, German citizens account for 13 per cent of the 300 winners - the most from any nation - followed by Italy (12 per cent); France (10 per cent); and the UK (just under 10 per cent) - meaning a large number of winners based in the UK are foreigners. 

Ned Stafford 

UPDATE (posted 25 January 2008): A full list of the winners of the young researcher grants is now available from the ERC website