Brussels, 12 Jul 2005
The 14 shortlisted research teams in contention for this year's Descartes Prize were announced by the Commission on 11 July at a special event in Brussels to mark the next stage of the annual scientific competition.
The coordinators of each nominated project were in Brussels to present their work to the Descartes Prize Grand Jury - the last stage before the definitive list of no more than five finalists and prize winners is announced at an award ceremony in London on 2 December.
The Descartes Prize is open to cross-border teams of researchers from all fields that have achieved outstanding scientific and technological results. The 14 nominees for 2005 were selected from a total of 85 submissions - three times more than were received last year - and comprise 76 research teams working in life sciences, engineering, physics, information and earth sciences, and social sciences.
The nominees include, from the field of life sciences, the CANCERGENES project coordinated by Ian Tomlinson of Cancer Research UK. This initiative is designed to identify genes that can reveal in patients a predisposition to developing different forms of cancer. The team has already uncovered a gene that shows if a person is likely to develop colorectal cancer, mapped the gene for renal cell cancer, and the project is also expected to help scientists to better understand how cancer develops.
In the field of information sciences, nominees include the GRAB project, which aims to provide visually impaired users with access to the three-dimensional graphic computer world using their senses of touch and hearing. Researchers have already developed a system that allows blind users to explore virtual 3D objects using their fingers, and trials have confirmed its usefulness and potential.
One of four projects to be nominated under the physics heading is the HESS experiment, and CORDIS News spoke to the project's initiator Heinrich Volk, formerly the director of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics. Professor Volk said that the main objective of the project has been the development of a new astronomical instrument to measure high-energy gamma rays, enabling the team to explore some of the most extreme objects and events in the Universe
Using the Earth's own atmosphere as a kind of giant detector, the team are able to determine the direction of origin of the gamma radiation, and thus over time can look for regions of the sky where such radiation is more densely clustered, pointing to the sources of gamma rays such as supernovae. The project has led to the first ever gamma ray images of astronomical objects, and could also tell scientists much about the formation of the Universe by analysing gamma radiation from its early past.
'Cosmic radiation is an important issue to understand if you are going to mount a manned mission to Mars, for example, as the astronauts will be constantly exposed. Furthermore, approximately 10 to 20 per cent of genetic mutations here on Earth are produced by such external radiation,' Professor Volk explained.
'This is still a relatively new measurement technique, around ten years old, but already HESS has found so many sources of radiation that we can almost do astronomy using high energy gamma ray measurements,' he added. The camera telescopes constructed as part of the project are located in Namibia, partly because the centre of our own galaxy is visible only in the Southern Sky, and the project includes Namibian and South African partners alongside some of the most prestigious research teams in Europe.
However, Professor Volk and his colleagues face strong competition from other projects in the same field. For example the PULSE project, with its focus on pulsar science in Europe, has led to the discovery of nearly 800 of these rotating neutron stars, including the first double pulsar ever recorded.
All eyes will now be on the Descartes Prize Grand Jury, which must decide on the five projects that will make up this year's finalists, as well as the eventual winners of the EU's most prestigious scientific prize.