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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 The double life of a citizen physicist
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 What makes a man?
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Title  European science – from Nobel to Descartes

The 2004 Descartes Prize ceremony was held in Prague, in the Czech capital’s famous castle. The surroundings were certainly in keeping with the status of an accolade that has almost come to be regarded as the EU’s very own ‘Nobel Prize’. A million euros is awarded to two research teams for scientific excellence through close transnational co-operation. For the first time, this year also brought recognition for the field of science communication with five awards shared between scientists and the documentary makers.

The two coordinators of the 2004 Descartes Prize winning teams. On the left, Howry Jacobs, of Tampere University; on the right, Anders Karlsson, of the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan in Stockholm. © L. Špaček
The two coordinators of the 2004 Descartes Prize winning teams. On the left, Howry Jacobs, of Tampere University; on the right, Anders Karlsson, of the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan in Stockholm.
© L. Špaček
Eight finalists were in the running for the 2004 Descartes Prize. Unlike the Nobel Prize, this prestigious European award goes to transnational teams rather than individual researchers. Their work is judged on the criteria of excellence and co-operation, and the necessary balance between the two.

“This prize is essential because it is part of the process of the Europeanisation of research by encouraging scientists to co-operate more and more effectively,” said Janez Potočnick, European Commissioner for science and research, at the Descartes opening ceremony. 

Three research projects in the medical field, two in the field of engineering and nanotechnologies, and three in the information and communication technologies were vying for an award on 2 December 2004. These eight teams had been selected by a panel of experts from the 28 nominations. Now it was up to the Grand Jury – headed this year by the astrophysicist Ene Ergma, Vice President of the Estonian Academy of Sciences and President of the Estonian Parliament – to decide on the two final winners. Two research teams at the forefront of knowledge, one in the field of mitochondrial genetics and the other in quantum computing, finally stepped up to receive their awards.

From teleportation to encryption
The Long Distance Photonic Quantum Communication (IST-QuComm) project was coordinated by Professor Anders Karlsson of the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan in Stockholm (SE) and brought together laboratories from six European countries (Austria, Germany, France, Sweden, the United Kingdom and Switzerland), as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the USA.

The researchers explored the very subtle and delicate properties of quantum physics in search of a concrete application that can be used in practice: that of quantum cryptography for secure communications, in particular for the ‘inviolable’ protection of electronic commerce. The researchers also demonstrated, at the fundamental level, the feasibility of phototonic phenomena of teleportation, seen as paving the way for a future revolution in the information and communication technologies. 

DNA and ageing
The other Descartes prize was in the field of biomedicine. The Mitochondrial Biogenesis, Ageing and Disease (MBAD) project was coordinated by Professor Howry Jacobs of Tampere University (Finland) and involved researchers from Sweden, Britain, Italy and France. This co-operative effort investigated the relationships between genetic mutations that affect the cell mitochondria – the energy sources that power them – and certain degeneration linked to ageing, as well as a wide range of degenerative diseases of the nervous, coronary and muscular systems, etc.

The project first took shape back in the 1990s, with the researchers succeeding over the years in mapping and identifying the genes of the mitochondrial DNA as well as the “diseases of the genetic core” that lie at the root of a large number of disorders. In so doing, they opened up a very promising field for further progress in biomedicine. 

Communicating science
Janez Potočnick, European Commissioner for science and research. © L. Špaček
Janez Potočnick, European Commissioner for science and research.
© L. Špaček
A new feature of the 2004 Descartes Prize was that, for the first time, awards were given not only for scientific research but also for projects aimed at promoting the understanding of scientific progress and its implications. These new prizes reflect the Commission’s policy aimed at both boosting research culture and supporting the communication of its results.

“It is high time that we recognise the significant contribution made by those who communicate on science issues [and promote] a greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of science,” noted Potočnick. "The importance of communicating science to the general public cannot be overestimated. Science cannot live isolated from society. The public must be able to understand research results and have an informed opinion on the state of scientific progress.” 

Five winners shared the €250 000 prize money allocated to this new Science Communication Award, reserved for researchers who have already received a national award. Face à phasme (“Confronting the phantoms of the insect world”) was one of these winners. The maker of this documentary, the French producer and director Vincent Lamy (MIF-Sciences 2002 Prize), works regularly on the very popular science programme C’est pas sorcier (It’s not magic) that goes out in France and Belgium and attracts a particularly large audience among pre-adolescents.

Face à phasme penetrates the mysteries of strange green-blooded insects with a hatred of water that catch their prey by remaining immobile to the point where they blend imperceptibly into the vegetation. This documentary film was rewarded for its scientific rigour, humour, clarity, rhythm and imagination – all essential ingredients in sparking a desire for knowledge. 

Also in the field of film, veteran British science presenter David Attenborough (2003 Michael Faraday Prize) was rewarded for his life’s work, in particular his famous wildlife documentaries made for the BBC. This film-maker and ethologist has long fascinated the general public with his constant search for scenes of animal life never before captured on film. At the same time, he regularly reveals to the experts aspects of animal behaviour (such as birds of paradise) that shed new light on their work. 

Sharing knowledge
Three scientists were also rewarded for the way in which they share their knowledge and passion for science. The mobile exhibition on composite materials coordinated by Ignaas Verpoest (Special JEC Award 2003), professor at   the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium), made a major impact in 2002, in particular during European Science Week. Composites on Tour, housed in an orange trailer pulled by a truck, travelled 10 000 km on the highways and byways of Europe, stopping off in town centres as well as motorway parking areas.

The trailer – itself made of composite materials – demonstrated these new materials (especially carbon fibres) that combine impressive strength with extreme lightness. Composites are used in making everything from boats and bicycles to cables and credit cards. Particularly beautiful objects created by young designers were also on highlighted occasion, and sometimes presented in parallel exhibitions. 

Wolfgang M. Heckl (Communicator Award 2002), professor of experimental physics at the Ludwig Maximilians University and promoter of the Munich Centre of Excellence for Nanobiotechnologies (DE), is a very popular media personality in his home country. He has participated in more than 50 television and radio programmes and writes regular columns for newspapers and popular science magazines. His passion is to share with others his knowledge of the latest scientific discoveries, especially in the minute and futuristic world of nanotechnologies.

The final winner in this category was the biochemist Peter Csermerly, professor at Budapest’s Semmelweiss University, who was nominated by the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) from which he received the Award for Communication in the Life Sciences in 2003. Since 1996, Csermerly has been stimulating the interest of young secondary school pupils, opening up the doors of the laboratories to show them the reality – and also the difficulties – of research work.

With the help of scientists, doctoral candidates and professors he launched the Foundation for Student Research with the aim of identifying young talent and giving them the opportunity to realise their potential. Csermerly expanded on this initiative in 2002 when he founded the Youth Excellence network that benefits students in some 30 countries. Who knows? Perhaps there are some future ‘Descartes’ among them.

2005: The call for proposals for the 2005 Descartes Prizes for research and scientific communication was published in the EU's Official Journal on 15/12/2004. It is available on CORDIS

The five winners of the communication prize: Vincent Lamy - Peter Csermerly - Wolfgang M.Heckl - Ignaas Verpoest - David Attenborough
The five winners of the communication prize: David Attenborough - Wolfgang M.Heckl - Peter Csermerly - Ignaas Verpoest - Vincent Lamy

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