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ERC and the University of Florence, taking stock of 10 years of excellence

The researchers and the financed projects

A kind of blank check, given on trust to scholars who propose innovative and independent research. This is what the European Research Council (ERC) has been bestowing for the past 10 years to the top researchers in their field, enabling them to develop, in addition to the project, a team to support them in their efforts to move forward the frontiers in all fields of science. Part of the assessment of the first decade of the European Agency are also the UNIFI researchers who have received up to now one of the ERC grants - starting, consolidating and advanced - for a five-year project.

"ERC-funded studies are a reference point for the 'Excellence Science' promoted by the European Union under Horizon 2020, says the Vice-president for Research Marco Bindi. The further development of pioneering research, capable of overcoming the highest competition among equally high-quality proposals, is one of the strategic goals of the University of Florence, also achieved thanks to the support offered to its researchers by the University."

The first UNIFI researcher to win an ERC grant was Paola Romagnani, Professor of Nephrology at the Department of Biomedical, Experimental and Clinical Sciences 'Mario Serio', which received two of them: an initial one in 2008 and a consolidator grant in 2015.

"With RESCARF (Renal Stem Cells, potential role in kidney pathologies and as new therapeutic tools), funded with € 820,000, my team and I have characterized renal stem cells, says Romagnani. RENOIR (RENal prOgenItoRs as tools to understand kidney), has obtained funding for nearly 2 million euros to develop treatments to fight kidney diseases."

The plural is a must because thanks to the funding Romagnani has created the Nephrology Laboratory at Meyer University Hospital, which involves more than 25 researchers and is equipped with state-of-the-art instrumentation. "Thanks to the very strong selection of ERC, based on meritocratic criteria, the researchers gain a sense of authority that translates into an internationally acknowledged business card. This, in turn, allows them to create fruitful collaborations and to obtain further funding, such as those that have enabled the creation of the Laboratory." "The grant also grants the researcher a great deal of freedom and a sufficient time to innovate, and the ability to handle financing in an entrepreneurial way. I have lived the investment made upon me and on my ideas as the springboard of a series of positive chain reactions."

In 2014, the STANIB (Space, Time and Number in the Brain) project, co-funded by David Charles Burr, was completed. The study investigated how the human brain perceives space, time and number of objects to build a visual map of the world, considering them together and not as independent and separate dimensions.

 "One of the major achievements that has allowed us to receive funding is precisely the numbers. I am talking about the results reached by the young Italian and foreign researchers, 10 in all, that we were able to recruit as doctoral and post-doc candidates, explains Burr, Professor of Psychobiology and Physiological Psychology at the Department of Neuroscience, Drugs and Child Health (NEUROFARBA). Six of them went on to establish their research career at our University, such as Roberto Arrighi, or at other Italian and European institutes, earning ERC and FIR funding as a result. Another notable achievement is the number of publications, 70 in recent years, on authoritative international scientific journals."

"The other goal reached, more general but just as important, is the creation of a center of excellence in Tuscany based on the three that worked at STANIB (University of Florence, University of Pisa and CNR Institute of Neuroscience) that will continue to carry on the research on perception: a critical mass of researchers, who continue to work closely as they did in these years."

Roberta Sessoli, professor of General and Inorganic Chemistry, has explored the new frontiers of nanoscience with the MolNanoM@S project (Molecular Nanomagnets on Surfaces: New Phenomena for Spin-Based Technologies), funded with an advanced grant of 2.3 million euros and concluded in 2015. The main objective of the study was the storage and manipulation of information using as a ultra-miniaturized memories a particular class of molecules.

"ERC funding has enabled the acquisition of sophisticated instrumentation, with which significant results have been achieved both from the point of view of fundamental research and for applications in the field of hybrid materials for quantum technologies, Sessoli comments. The ERC grant has succeeded in generating a significant spinoff effect and the research team successfully participated in other funding applications. Equally important was the opportunity to train young researchers on cutting-edge nanoscience research issues and methods. Seven of them have earned a PhD degree and almost all of them are still doing research in prestigious international institutes and universities."

Leonardo Fallani, associate professor of Physics of the Matter, has been awarded a consolidator grant for a project on Topology and symmetries in synthetic fermionic systems (TOPSIM), which began in 2016. It is an experimental study in the field of "quantum simulation", that is, experimental engineering of controllable microscopic quantum systems, to solve open problems of fundamental physics.In particular, Fallani's team devotes its studies to the behavior of matter in the presence of very high magnetic fields, unrealizable with conventional techniques, and new states of matter, envisaged and hitherto never observed, in highly symmetrical magnetic systems.

Francesco Pavone, professor of Physics of the Matter and Director of LENS (European Laboratory for Non-linear Spectroscopy), coordinates the BRAIN_BIT project "All-optical brain-to-brain behavior and information transfer" funded with an advanced grant of 2.3 million euros. The project, which sees the collaboration of the National Research Council (CNR) of Pisa and the Italian Institute of Technology in Lecce, is devoted to the study of an optical system capable of interfacing two brains, allowing reading, writing and transferring data.

Though it started in 2016, the study already produced positive ideas, "because thanks to funding, Pavone explains, we have been able to expand our previous research with the utmost creativity and credibility for challenging activities, such as ours, which opens the possibility to obtain very advanced results. Furthermore, it has allowed us to recruit young researchers from all over the world, who will join the UNIFI researchers."

The latest ERC funds earned by a UNIFI researcher consist of a consolidator grant awarded to Daniele Vignoli, a Demography associate professor, which is close to 1.7 million euros and is dedicated to "Economic Uncertainty and Fertility in Europe", that is, the relationship between economic uncertainty and fertility in Europe, through a comparative perspective among types, generations and countries.

The project, which will take off next September, integrates demographic and sociological perspectives with approaches typical of experimental economics and social psychology.

Once again, an original perspective for "a unique opportunity that will allow me to build a research group, autonomous and with the resources needed to carry through new research challenges," explains Vignoli, who concludes by highlighting the elements that made the ERC the most important source of European funding for excellence in research: "an ERC project ought to be risky, but if successful it must lead to new knowledge." 

21 July 2017