Funding both investigator-led research and large research centres
The control of ‘fake news’ on social media is one possible outcome of an Investigator Programme project at the University of Limerick
Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI director of strategy and research
‘Science Foundation Ireland’s (SFI) latest Investigators’ Programme will invest €43 million in 26 different research projects over the next five years. Six of the research projects received co-funding worth a total of €3 million from Teagasc, Geological Survey Ireland (GSI), the Marine Institute (MI), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The programme funds outstanding individuals performing excellent, impactful research, and supports the development of world-class research capability and human capital in areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) that demonstrably support and underpin enterprise competitiveness and societal development in Ireland.
“Broadly speaking, we put half of our funding into investigator-led research and half into the large research centres,” explains SFI director of strategy and research Dr Ruth Freeman.
“It’s important that both cohorts are funded. We provide supports right the way through researchers’ careers from our Starting Investigator grants right up to senior academics who are internationally recognised leaders in their field. These people are of absolutely critical importance to this country. They are thought leaders and are pushing the boundaries of knowledge and are magnets for other researchers and students. This is very important for the next generation of talent. They are also magnets for funding and are very successful in securing EU and other non-exchequer funding.”
The projects supported under the latest programme cover a wide range of important areas including mathematical modelling, nanoscience, inflammatory diseases, cancer, materials, cattle breeding, seismology, communications and climate change.
The control of “fake news” on social media is one possible outcome of the project being led by Prof James Gleeson of the University of Limerick. The team aims to develop new mathematical techniques and models to help revolutionise the understanding of how information spreads online. They will develop an algorithm to identify the users of social networks who are the “superspreaders”, those users whose retweets can make information travel faster to everyone else. This in turn could help find ways to spread important information more quickly on health or terrorism alerts, and to control undesirable aspects of social media such as the spreading of misinformation and false rumours.
The team led by Dr Stephen Keely at RCSI is working on improved treatments for chronical intestinal disease, which are debilitating conditions that impact the lives of many people. The researchers will develop new pharmaceutical and nutraceutical approaches to activate the intestinal protein that controls cellular processes involved in diarrhoeal diseases. It is hoped that these new, complimentary, therapies will deliver improved health and quality of life for many thousands of Irish people.
In the same broad area, the UCD team led by Prof Ulla Knaus is seeking ways to improve the care of patients suffering from inflammatory bowel diseases (IBD), chronic gut disorders which affect one in 250 people in Europe. To date there is no known cure or cause for the disease. The long-term goal of the UCD team is to improve patient care by understanding how changes in the gut oxidant/antioxidant balance will affect intestinal health. This includes evaluating changes in the protective lining of the gut and in the composition of gut bacteria.
A team at National University of Ireland Galway led by Prof Corrado Santocanale is working on novel treatments for cancer. This project focuses on a protein called CDC7, which is essential for cell division. Drugs that block CDC7 are in clinical trials as a potential treatment for cancer. However, the lack of a good understanding of how CDC7 works is impeding the development of CDC7-based therapies. Using novel genetic technologies, researchers are now, for the first time, in a position to discover the role that CDC7 plays in several processes important for cell division. This research will greatly contribute to understanding how cells divide and to the development of new therapeutic strategies for cancer patients.
A joint project between DCU and Teagasc and led by Prof Miles Turner and Dr Gary Lanigan has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from Irish agriculture. Fertiliser production emits greenhouse gases, and the use of fertilisers can damage ecosystems and human health. This project will produce fertiliser using an electrically driven plasma process free from greenhouse gas emissions, and further reduce emission by treating slurry with the processed product. These techniques could eliminate polluting emissions presently valued at €500 million annually in Ireland, or $250 billion (€215bn) annually worldwide.
This is just a small selection of the ground-breaking research projects selected for funding under the programme. While many of them show clear commercial potential, that is not the main goal of the support.
“We can see a path to use in many of the projects, but we are not looking for that at the outset”, says Dr Freeman. “Even where these paths are clear you can often get unexpected outcomes. For example, Emeline Hill has funded to look at the muscle functions in thoroughbred and non-thoroughbred horses and she ended up identifying the gene responsible for speed in thoroughbreds. That was totally unpredictable.”
Predictable or not, the outcomes from SFI-funded research in terms of patents have been very impressive. “We did some analysis recently where we looked at all patents in Ireland and the research publications they referenced. Half of the publications came from research funded by SFI while one-third of the investigator awards made between 2005and 2013 produced at least one paper cited in a paper. That’s where discovery moves to innovation.”