SFI’s challenge-based programme hopes to find practical solutions to real problems
Concept of challenge based scientific research is almost as old as recorded history
Dr Ruth Freeman says challenge based funding ‘very much focuses on the end user application’
Six teams of researchers are competing for the €1 million Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Future Innovator Prize, a new challenge-based programme for the development of innovative approaches to societal challenges facing Ireland.
The concept of challenge-based scientific research is almost as old as recorded history. Indeed, the original “eureka moment” came from a challenge presented to the philosopher-mathematician Archimedes by King Hiero of Syracuse who wanted to know if he was being cheated by a goldsmith. We got the famous bath time revelation and the principle of Archimedes as a result.
Roll on nearly 2,000 years and we get to the longitude problem. Up until the 18th century sailors had no way of reliably establishing precisely where they were as they had no accurate means of measuring longitude. This led to numerous shipwrecks and instances of the same islands being “discovered” on numerous occasions.
The problem was solved by John Harrison who developed the world’s first super-accurate clocks which would allow sailors to know the time at the Greenwich meridian regardless of where they were in the world. From there it required a fairly simple noontime calculation with a sextant and a steady hand to figure out longitude. Harrison earned half of a £20,000 prize - worth millions today - put up by the British Commissioners for the Discovery of the Longitude at Sea for his trouble.
The idea of putting forward cash prizes and awards for research to address great societal challenges is again being employed by governments and other organisations around the world, including SFI.
The six teams aim to address a number of societal challenges through the development of novel, potentially disruptive, technologies.
Projects include the development of an artificial intelligence based system for minimising hospital waiting-lists and optimising healthcare capacity in Ireland; the use of gene editing technologies to treat rare diseases; a means for clinicians to improve the breast cancer diagnostic pathway through real time point of care detection of breast disease; and a novel hydrogel to treat chronic pain.
The competition is funded by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation through SFI and is part of an overall Government plan to cultivate challenge-based funding in Ireland, according to SFI strategy and communications director Dr Ruth Freeman.
“Challenge-based funding is a solution focused approach to funding research that uses prizes and other incentives to direct innovation activities at specific problems,” she explains. “The SFI Future Innovator Prize challenges the country’s best and brightest unconventional thinkers and innovators to create novel, potentially disruptive technologies in collaboration with societal stakeholders and end users.”
Practical solutions to real problems
One of the key benefits of challenge-based funding is its focus on practical solutions to real world problems. “That’s one of the things about it that I really like,” says Freeman. “It very much focuses on the end user application. We often encounter an issue known as technology push. That’s where you get a wonderful piece of technology which doesn’t really have a practical application, but you get people pushing it nevertheless. This type of funding avoids that.”
The Future Innovator Prize is now well advanced. “We launched it last year and got 30 applications,” she says. “We shortlisted 12 teams for the first phase and gave them €20,000 each to develop their concepts. This helped them coalesce as teams and set out the scope of the problem they wanted to solve.”
A novel aspect of the programme is the requirement for a societal impact champion to be part of the leadership team. The key role of this champion is to provide a strong societal perspective for the team as they develop their solution.
“The champions will help keep the focus on the practical aspects of the solution. They might point out why something won’t work or how it could work if some changes are made. We have now cut that number down to six finalists and we have awarded €20,000 to each team to further validate and prototype their proposed solutions. The teams will come back to us at the end of the year and one of them will receive the overall award of €1 million to further develop and deploy their solution.”
This is just the first of a number of such competitions envisaged by SFI. “AI for societal good is the next one,” she says. “We all know of the challenges and huge potential presented by AI and the competition will be to look at how it can be harnessed for the good of society. SFI supports a huge amount of AI technology development but this is about deployment. It will start with the end user and ask people what AI can do for them in different areas of their lives. We are also talking about challenges like climate change and the place of technology in doing things differently to tackle that.”