EU maths projects point to potential of ERC

April 13, 2005

Brussels, 12 Apr 2005

In many ways, the New and Emerging Science and Technology (NEST) activity of the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) has been the precursor to the European Research Council. Unlike other FP6 activities, the research priorities were not determined from the outset. The 215 million euro NEST budget was reserved for research in new and emerging areas that offer real potential, and that cut across or lie outside the thematic priority areas funded elsewhere in FP6.

As the activity is intended to anticipate future needs, it is not surprising that a high proportion of the projects funded by NEST could be described as basic research. While basic research has always received a certain amount of EU funding from the Commission's research programmes, NEST offered additional opportunities for these high-risk projects - a role that is to be taken on and expanded by the European Research Council (ERC).

Already under NEST, certain scientific fields have been brought into the EU's research framework programmes - fields that had not previously been addressed specifically by calls for proposals published under the framework programmes. One of those fields is mathematics.

Four projects driven by mathematics have already received funding under NEST, and the variety of topics covered by the projects illustrates the wide ranging impact that research in this area can have. The projects address field theories and mathematical modelling, the functioning of organisms at a molecular level, the extension of quantum chemistry to larger scales, and the integration of approaches to scientific problems using mathematics.

When scientists model a system, whether it be a car, an elevator or electrons, the mathematical tool used is a differential equation, explains Werner Seiler from Heidelberg University - one of the participants in the 'Global integrability of field theories' (GIFT) project. The equations need, however, to take account of changes that may occur within this system on account of the relationships between the different elements. This has been a challenge for mathematicians since the early 19th century, and is the focus of the GIFT project.

The partners hope to develop mathematical techniques and then make them algorithmic, turning them into computer programmes that will enable engineers to solve problems.

The HYGEIA (Hybrid systems for biochemical network modelling and analysis) project will use modelling know-how from engineering control and design, advanced computing and biology to produce hybrid systems that, the partners are hoping, could be used as the basis for computer-based simulations of whole cells. The team is examining three biological systems: e.coli, DNA for yeast and cell duplication. Each system is unexplained in some way. For example, when e.coli undergoes nutritional stress it stops reproducing and hibernates until more food is available, project coordinator John Lygeros from the University of Patras in Greece told CORDIS News. In the case of cell duplication, it is not known why the two new cells are sometimes identical, and sometimes different. At some point a 'decision' is made, and the HYGEIA consortium wishes to know more about the 'randomness' of this stage.

Moving from biology to chemistry, the 'Density functional calculations for systems of unprecedented size on parallel computers' (BIGDFT) project will devise faster techniques to extend quantum chemistry to a larger scale. This is likely to lead to new possibilities in nanotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry. The team will investigate whether linear approaches to chemical computation can be used in density-functional theory - the tool used to predict the geometry of molecules. . If successful, the resulting open-source software will be capable of performing electronic structure calculations on systems of unprecedented size, explains Thierry Deutsch from the French Atomic Energy Commission.

Finally, work within the NETIAM project has focused on the application of mathematical models to four very different themes, selected as areas offering opportunities for the development and use of mathematics for the formation of new multidisciplinary collaborations. The areas in question are:
- new multidisciplinary challenges in modelling the business environment;
- modelling criminality in the social environment;
- challenges in visualisation and simulation for virtual materials analysis and design;
- complexity at the molecular level.

Applying mathematical models to the business world could lead to the development of desktop risk management systems, enabling sustainable growth and improving competitiveness. Modelling criminality in the social environment may lead to the construction of models of collective behaviour, with the ultimate aim of advising on the governance of this behaviour, as well as tools for understanding and predicting crime.

Each of these projects is very different, but they do all have two things in common: they are high risk in that no concrete results are guaranteed, and the multi-disciplinary nature of each project means that they are breaking down barriers between different disciplines.

'We already have people speaking who have never spoken to each other before,' says Dr Seiler, whose project only started in January. Dr Lygeros is also very excited by the coming together of various disciplines in the HYGEIA project. While his background is in engineering the project has a strong focus on biology, which is, he says, 'the furthest I've ever been from engineering'.

It is hoped that these unique collaborations will provide the answers to long-standing questions as knowledge is shared between traditionally separate domains. And even if the ultimate goal of each project is not achieved, a number of major problems will be addressed on the way. 'This will already be a success,' says Dr Seiler.

All project participants are likely to be following the debate on the ERC very closely, where researchers themselves are expected to play a leading role in dictating the research agenda. Until now, it has been 'almost impossible' for mathematics projects to obtain funding from the EU, says Dr Seiler. He regards NEST as a 'fortunate exception', but is hoping for yet more opportunities from the ERC. 'Any change there is very welcome,' he says.

For further information on NEST, please consult the following web address:
http://www.cordis.lu/nest

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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