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Descartes prizes awarded to outstanding projects and communicators

Researchers responsible for a method of producing hydrogen using water and the sun, a new telescope system and new knowledge on programmed cell death that could lead to treatment for cancer and AIDS were the winners of this year's prestigious Descartes Prize. The EU prize of &...
Descartes prizes awarded to outstanding projects and communicators
Researchers responsible for a method of producing hydrogen using water and the sun, a new telescope system and new knowledge on programmed cell death that could lead to treatment for cancer and AIDS were the winners of this year's prestigious Descartes Prize. The EU prize of €1 million will be split between the three winning teams.

Meanwhile the honour of being chosen as Europe's best science communicator had to be shared by five teams for their work on a project to get teenagers interested in science, an interactive museum, work to involve the general public in marine science, a magazine for children and a documentary series.

The prizes have become 'a kind of European Nobel Prize' according to Germany's Minister for Research and Education, Annette Schavan. She presented the awards along with EU Science and Research Commissioner Janez Potocnik, who termed the prizes 'European Science's Oscars'.

The HYDROSOL project, one of the three winners of the Descartes Prize for excellence, has developed a method of producing hydrogen from water-splitting, using the energy of the sun. The results could enable the environmentally friendly production of hydrogen for energy purposes.

'Ahead of the Spring European Council which will focus on climate and energy, I would like to say that we have the technology, we have the passion, we are here, so come and talk to us if you need a renewable energy of the future,' said Athanasios Konstandopoulos, coordinator of HYDROSOL. The project involves teams from academia and industry from Germany, Denmark and the UK, as well as Greece.

The High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) has revolutionised existing astronomical observation techniques and increased knowledge and understanding of the Milky Way and beyond. The system comprises four telescopes built and operated in Namibia by a consortium of European and African partners. It brings together around 100 scientists from Germany, France, the UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Armenia, South Africa and Namibia.

The telescopes detect light emitted when cosmic gamma rays with tera electron volt energies are absorbed in to Earth's atmosphere. Scientists are then able to generate an image of the gamma-ray sky by reconstructing the trajectory of the gamma rays.

The third winner, the APOPTOSIS project, has significantly increased understanding of apoptosis (programmed cell death), which is expected to contribute to future treatments for cancer and AIDS. The team gathers scientists from Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden.

Excessive apoptosis is one of the causes of strokes and heart attacks, as well as hereditary diseases and AIDS. Deficient apoptosis meanwhile is one of the hallmarks of cancer, and can result in chemotherapy resistance and the failure of other treatments.

The project's findings are important for those looking into how cell death occurs. The team's papers have already been cited over 50,000 times in other publications.

The winners were selected from 13 nominees by a Grand Jury chaired by Claudie Haigneré, a former minister in France, and a former astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA).

On the Descartes Science Communication prize, Mr Potocnik reflected that, 'Without the people, or the language to bridge the gap of what scientists know, and what a wider audience can comprehend, nobody would understand - except very few.'

Those deemed this year to have done the most to bridge that gap were:
- Sheila Donegan and Eoin Gill for the weekly Eureka science magazine for children;
- the documentary series 'Europe, A Natural History', co-produced by ÖRF, the BBC and ZDF;
- Professor Vittore Silverstrini for his City of Science in Naples, which unites an interactive science and technology museum with a business innovation centre;
- Dr Odd Askel Bergstad and other scientists from the MAR-ECO network for their work on involving the general public in the project's census of marine life;
- Wendy Sadler for her 'Science Made Simple' project that seeks to get teenagers excited about science.

When presented with her prize, former Welsh Woman of the Year for Science and Technology Wendy Sadler, said: 'I am thrilled to win this prize and to be following in the footsteps of one of my heroes, Sir David Attenborough.' Sir David picked up the same prize in 2005.

The prize-giving ceremony was preceded by an outdoors celebration of European science in the heart of Brussels' EU quarter. Commission President José Manuel Barroso, Janez Potocnik, Annette Schavan and 500 scientific and political invitees marked the launch of the EU's new research programme, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), watching images of science and research on a giant screen.

'We should take advantage of events like today's. It will be 2014 before another inauguration of an EU Framework Programme. And it will be 2057 before the next big birthday for the EU. By that time, the results of research that we are starting to fund with FP7 will no longer be theory, but practice,' said Mr Barroso.

The event takes place on the eve of the 2007 European Spring Council, and this is no coincidence. The central role of research in creating and maintaining a competitive and sustainable Europe is now rarely disputed.

Source: CORDIS News attendance at Descartes and Today is the Future events; European Commission

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