Both basic and applied research recognised in 2003 Descartes Prize

November 24, 2003

Brussels, 21 Nov 2003

Two international teams of scientists were honoured at the 2003 Descartes Prize ceremony in Rome on 20 November, each winning a share of the one million euro prize money in recognition of their cutting edge research.

Significantly, by sharing the award between two teams, the Grand Jury was able to reward both fundamental scientific investigation and high tech applied research. First prize went to a project that has developed light emitting polymers which could lead to appliances such as a roll up television or computer screen, while a second award was made to a consortium that has accurately measured variations in the Earth's rotational path to within centimetres.

Speaking after the winners were announced, EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin described the Descartes Prize as unique in its recognition of both international collaboration and scientific excellence. 'It also shows that one cannot simply distinguish between fundamental and applied research. The two are linked, as basic investigation inevitably leads to useful applications,' he added.

Indeed, the Pledd project (polymer light emitting diodes for displays), which scooped 700,000 euro of the total prize money, is based on a chance fundamental discovery made by project coordinator Professor Richard Friend and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1989.

They found that certain plastic polymers emitted light when subjected to an electrical current, and immediately recognised the potential for innovative products. With a consortium of partners from Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, the first working application to use the polymer displays, an electric shaver from Philips, was developed.

Professor Friend believes that real commercial success will come with the development of full colour displays, which he estimates will be achievable within two to three years. 'As you can see, it has taken over ten years from discovery to producing applications. Perhaps there is too much pressure to get products out quickly, and more realistic expectations are needed,' he said.

When asked what it meant to win such an award, Professor Friend told CORDIS News: 'It feels very good! Especially because it is a team prize, which is much more in the spirit of how research works now, and there still aren't many prizes that honour teams.' He went on to explain that the team would use the prize money to fund 'blue skies research'.

The second project to be honoured was coordinated by Professor Veronique Dehant from the Belgian Royal Observatory. Her consortium's 'non rigid Earth nutation model' has improved the accuracy of measurements of the Earth's rotation in space from a few metres to a few centimetres, which will have a major impact on the efficiency of global positioning and navigation systems, such as Europe's Galileo constellation.

Professor Dehant explained to CORDIS News that she felt honoured to receive such recognition for the team's work: 'Our work is always carried out behind the scenes. Few people realise that you need to know the exact position of the Earth when using positioning technologies.'

The next goal for the consortium of partners from Belgium, France, Poland, Spain, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Russia, is to apply the same methodology to Mars, in the hope of discovering whether Earth's sister planet has a similar molten core. This effort will now be supported with the 300,000 euro Descartes prize money.

Closing the ceremony, Commissioner Busquin said that although the Descartes Prize is still only four years old, he believes it is already giving European research a 'new personality' and highlighting its contribution to society at large.

And in the context of attracting a new generation into science, he said: 'This prize will help young people to gain a passion for research, help them to understand its importance and values, and provide them with valuable role models.'

For further information, please visit:
http:///www.cordis.lu/science-society/des cartes/home.html

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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