Oxford social scientists among Europe’s ‘outstanding’ research leaders to receive ERC Advanced Grants

Two academics from Oxford’s Social Sciences Division are among the outstanding research leaders in Europe set to be awarded major ERC Advanced Grants.

Professor Shadreck Chirikure (School of Archaeology) and Professor Vili Lehdonvirta (Oxford Internet Institute) have been named among the 255 recipients of the prestigious awards across European institutions. The funding is some of the EU’s most competitive, providing leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Professor Shadreck Chirikure: New Bantu Mosaics

Professor Shadreck Chirikure

Professor Shadreck Chirikure

Professor Shadreck Chirikure’s New Bantu Mosaics project aims to transform our understanding of a fundamental area of historical change: the networks that connected humans to spaces, places, and resources, as Bantu farmers and hunter-gatherers lived their lives.

Modern day Bantu people represent a large ethnolinguistic group spread across Africa, but their historical expansion and interactions with foragers in southern Africa are a poorly understood topic in African and global histories. Current theory is that up to five-thousand years ago, farming caused a population expansion, which in turn caused Bantu farmers to move and settle across a third of Africa. This expansion is often thought to have been one directional, where the Bantu who moved south were isolated from those who remained in the north – but this understanding is built on coarse chronologies and outdated assumptions. As part of Professor Chirikure’s project, fieldwork will be conducted across eight countries – Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – to expand existing data sets, while high-resolution scientific analyses will be applied to well-dated metals, pottery, seeds, and bones, in order to improve our understanding of the spread of Bantu speakers across southern Africa between c. 300 BCE and 1500 CE. The outcomes of the project will shed new light on southern Africa and can serve as a model for other large-scale movements of people across the globe, such as the Yamnaya culture in Eastern Europe.

‘Migration is a powerful driver of historical change,’ says Professor Chirikure. ‘It currently ranks as one of the most sensitive socio-political challenges of our time. The New Bantu project will innovatively combine latest scientific techniques with worldviews to generate new knowledge with the potential for translation into solutions for tackling contemporary challenges with migration in Africa and globally.’

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta: Geopolitics of Cloud Computing

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta (credit: Aalto University/Mikko Raskinen)

Professor Vili Lehdonvirta’s research examines the politics and socio-economic implications of digital technologies, and the ERC Advanced Grant will support his study of the Geopolitics of Cloud Computing.

Today’s societies are highly reliant on digital services, but Lehdonvirta argues that the nature of our digital services is undergoing a silent revolution: data storage and computation are moving “into the cloud.” This means that instead of data being stored and processed on users’ own devices and on servers situated at organizations’ own premises, storage and processing is now increasingly concentrated into “hyperscale” data centres operated by multinational cloud computing providers. This concentration generates significant economies of scale, decreases capital costs, and improves energy efficiency. But it also creates new systemic risks and reconfigures international relations of power and dependence, as governments and economies become increasingly reliant on infrastructures that are often situated in another country. Lehdonvirta’s ERC project will for the first time map this changing geography of computation and examine how different states are attempting to shape it to their advantage. The goal is to understand how government policies interact with technology companies’ business strategies to shape global digital infrastructures—and through them, global politics.

Professor Lehdonvirta said ‘I am deeply grateful to the European Research Council for another opportunity to launch an investigation into a new frontier topic, and to the many colleagues who helped me shape this new research agenda.’

Iliana Ivanova, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: "To all the new ERC grantees, my heartfelt congratulations! These grants will not only support leading researchers in pushing the boundaries of knowledge, but also create some 2500 jobs for postdoctoral fellows, PhD students and other research staff across Europe. This investment nurtures the next generation of brilliant minds. I look forward to seeing the resulting breakthroughs and fresh advancements in the years ahead.”

President of the European Research Council Prof. Maria Leptin said: “Congratulations to the 255 researchers who will receive grants to follow their scientific instinct in this new funding round. I am particularly happy to see more mid-career scientists amongst the Advanced Grant winners this time. I hope that it will encourage more researchers at this career stage to apply for these grants.”

About ERC Advanced Grants

The ERC Advanced Grants target established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant achievements. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in mid-career researchers (12-17 years post-PhD), who have been successful in the Advanced Grants competitions, with 18% securing grants in this latest round. This competition attracted 1,829 proposals, which were reviewed by panels of internationally renowned researchers. Nearly fourteen percent of proposals were selected for funding. Estimates show that the grants will create 2,480 jobs in teams of new grantees.

About the ERC

The ERC, set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. It funds creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects based across Europe. The ERC offers four core grant schemes: Starting Grants, Consolidator Grants, Advanced Grants and Synergy Grants. With its additional Proof of Concept Grant scheme, the ERC helps grantees to bridge the gap between their pioneering research and early phases of its commercialisation.