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A unique success in the Czech Republic: three prestigious ERC grants to MU scientists

Four Czech applicants succeeded, three of them from Masaryk University: jurist David Kosař, historian of religion David Zbíral and biophysicist Robert Vácha.

Out of the total 327 awarded Consolidator grants, only 10 are hosted in new EU member states. Since 2007, ERC grants support research projects that aim beyond the frontiers of knowledge in their respective fields and have the potential for truly breakthrough discoveries. Until now, 51 ERC grants have been implemented at Czech institutions, 6 of them at MU.

“The outstanding success of our researchers shows the quality and competitiveness of R&D activities at Masaryk University. The growing number of ERC holders is also an important precondition for increasing the reputation of our research internationally, so that the university can move upwards in international rankings,” highlighted Martin Bareš, the rector of MU.

ERC Consolidator Grant allows scientists to focus on their research without major concerns for financing, as they receive up to EUR 2 million for a period of five years. Every year ERC chooses from among hundreds of applications from the entire European Union. A panel of up to twenty top scientists from all over the world selects, based on expert reports by other experts and personal interviews with the applicants, approximately 13% of submitted applications to be funded. The only evaluation criterion in ERC is scientific excellence – originality of research and its potential for truly breakthrough results, as well as the applicant’s creativity based on previous research. MU’s success is not only in the number of successful grants but also in the fact that two of them are in the social sciences and humanities category.

Historian of religion David Zbíral from the Faculty of Arts succeeded with his DISSINET project aimed at the study and research of dissident religious movements of the European Middle Ages through modern computational approaches. “The study of medieval dissident religiosity has ended in something of a dead end of infinite debates on the reliability of inquisitional records. In the DISSINET project, we want to bridge the different poles of this debate through a new approach based on computational modelling. We expect to offer a completely new view of both dissident Christianity and inquisitional models as such,” Zbíral explains, adding that, in history, the use of advanced quantitative methods is still quite rare. The project creates a systematic methodology for their use, as well as a very robust database. He and his colleagues will analyse the social, spatial and textual relations based on inquisitional records which encompass data on thousands of individuals from the 13th to the 16th century, with the aim of uncovering the emergency of social phenomena, such as covert networks, the sharing of religious culture and repression.

Historian of religion David Zbíral from the Faculty of Arts

For David Kosař, this is the second ERC-supported project. Five years ago it was a Starting grant thanks to which Kosař founded, at the Faculty of Law, the Judicial Studies Institute and focused on the study of the influence of judicial self-governance bodies on the selection of judges in Europe, including the European Court of Human Rights and the Court of Justice of the European Union. The new grant will allow him and his colleagues to focus on new issues related to the judiciary. “The erosion of democracy is a key issue in Europe. Our project will study the informal relations between judges and the political representation even within the judiciary. We are interested in negative phenomena, such as nepotism, clientelism and gender segregation, as well as positive institutions, such as international networks for the exchange of experience and identification of best practices, informal ethical panels, mentoring groups for female judges or constitutional practice compensating gaps in written law,” Kosař explains. Titled as INFINITY, the project straddles the border between jurisprudence, sociology and political science. Its main goal is to identify the most important informal judicial institutions and to assess their positive and negative impacts on the judiciary in their respective countries, as well as to analyse the impact of the EU and the Council of Europe on these structures, and to broaden the approach to the research into the judicial sector which has so far been focused on the interpretation of formal rules.

Biophysicist Robert Vácha from CEITEC MU

This year’s third grant goes to MU’s CEITEC. Biophysicist Robert Vácha specialises in the study of peptides with potential antimicrobial effects. “Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause more than 700,000 deaths per year, and this number is expected to reach 10 million by 2050. Also, new strains of bacteria resistant to all available types of antibiotics emerge, and the world may be approaching what we can call post-antibiotic era. My goal is to come up with brand new peptides which will selectively target and disrupt membranes of pathogens without disrupting human cells,” says Vácha. This ERC-CZ backed project will use a combination of computational methods of designing new peptides with experimental assessment of effectiveness. The methods and knowledge obtained through this project will allow scientists to define peptides that selectively kill bacteria, as well as to develop peptides targeting viruses with membranes, such as the flu, HIV or cancerous cells.

Biophysicist Robert Vácha from CEITEC MU.

ERC grants increase the reputation of the successful institution. MU has supported its scientists in competing for ERC grants since 2014. Through its own grant agency, MU offers services of internal and third-party consultants, workshops and seminars, as well as mock interviews prior to the interview before the ERC panel. “With the increasing number of ERC-supported researchers at MU we also have new opportunities to make use of their valuable experience in mentoring talented scientists,” says Vice-Rector for Research Šárka Pospíšilová.