U.K. Professor Captures Inaugural European Science Award
By Rob Knies
November 3, 2006 11:00 AM PT

We live in an age when the human race faces any number of grand societal and scientific challenges. Scientists rise to the occasion by actively engaging with such challenges and attempting to conquer them.

Count Dennis Bray among the latter.

Bray, active emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience, has used computational tools to derive novel insights in biological systems. He unraveled key detailed aspects of “chemotaxis,” the molecular mechanism by which bacteria detect and respond to chemical changes in their surroundings—swimming, for example, toward food and away from poisons.

In the process, he demonstrated that when computer simulations reach sufficient richness and accuracy, they can be treated as experimental objects in their own right. These surrogate organisms then can be used to tackle problems that cannot be approached with existing technology and equipment.

For his outstanding contribution, Bray has been chosen as the inaugural winner of the Royal Society and Académie des Sciences Microsoft European Science Award, presented in London on Nov. 3 at the Royal Society.

“Bray’s research is an extremely worthy example of the advancement of science through the use of computational methods,” said Luca Cardelli, fellow of the Royal Society and assistant director of Microsoft Research Cambridge. “Bray’s work, and other work in similar fields, will greatly impact our ability to develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of biological systems.”

The award, one of the largest international science awards extant, consists of €250,000. Of that total, completely funded by Microsoft, €7,500 is prize money, with the remainder earmarked for further research. In addition, the winner receives a unique crystal sculpture designed by British artist Susan Nixon.

“This will make a substantial contribution,” Cardelli said, “to supporting European scientists in their research into critical areas such as computing and the natural sciences.”

Jean-Philippe Courtois, president of Microsoft International, addressed the audience for the presentation ceremony, joining co-presenters Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society, and Olivier Pironneau, representing the Académie des Sciences.

Martin Rees, Jean-Philippe Courtois, Dennis Bray, and Olivier Pironneau during the European Science Award presentation.

“Some of the most innovative uses for software are developing at the intersection of computing and the natural sciences,” Courtois said. “Private-industry investment in scientific partnerships helps Europe stay competitive. Through this award and other programmes as part of the Microsoft European Science Initiative, we are helping to support the work of leading European scientists, such as Dr Bray, to push the boundaries of science and computing.”

The award furthers Microsoft Research Cambridge’s European Science Initiative, a strategic research effort focused on creating, leading, and accelerating new kinds of science and computing with the potential to create profound social, technological, scientific, and economic change. It is the latest manifestation of a long history of Microsoft Research’s close collaboration with European scientists and institutions.

Microsoft Research decided to create this prestigious award to recognize and reward scientists working in Europe who have made a major contribution to the advancement of science through the use of computational methods—and to demonstrate Microsoft’s continued support for the European science community.

Recognizing that, for the award to achieve its intended stature, the European science community would have to play an integral role in selecting the winner, Microsoft decided give this responsibility to the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences, the two oldest such organizations in the world.

“Advancing the state of the art in science and technology is a fundamental goal for Microsoft Research,” Cardelli said, “and as one of the largest technology companies, we believe that we have a unique ability to act as a catalyst for and contributor to broad-reaching scientific research.

“Research conducted by our researchers and through partnerships and programmes such as the European Science Initiative can bring immediate benefit to society and the scientific community. In the long term, we also believe that the research will impact how businesses and consumers use technology.”

The new award was announced on April 10. Nominations from a collection of national academies and departmental and university heads were sent to the Royal Society by a May 31 deadline. Selection, by a committee consisting of fellows of the Royal Society and members of the Académie des Sciences, was based on past achievement in the field.

The 2006 award honors achievement in computing and the biological sciences. The 2007 award will be presented for outstanding work in computing and the physical sciences.

The award, the monetary grant of which is the largest in computer science, is open to any research scientist who has been residing in Europe for at least 12 months before being nominated. The committee is charged with judging the nominees solely on the merits of their research. Employees of corporate research labs, including Microsoft’s, employees of the Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences, and persons involved in the administration of the award are not eligible.