‘Think-in’ aims to solve societal challenges through research
Science Foundation Ireland and American Chamber of Commerce to host event
Professor Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) will join forces with the American Chamber of Commerce on May 24th to host a “think-in” to identify a number of significant societal challenges that can be solved through research. Funding will then be made available to researchers with proposals on how they can be tackled.
This is part of the Future Ireland Grand Innovation Challenge Programme, a new SFI-led challenge-based funding programme that will harness Ireland’s innovation capabilities to develop disruptive and impactful solutions to key national societal and economic challenges.
Challenge-based research funding is not new and has been around in different forms for centuries. For example, the method for the accurate calculation of longitude was established as a result of a prize put up by the British government while food canning technology originated with a challenge set by Napoleon to find ways of feeding his armies on their long marches around Europe.
“This is something we have been trying to do for some time now,” says SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson. “The way that most research funding schemes tend to work in Ireland and other countries is for academics, research centres and investigators to come up with ideas and apply for funding. This is something completely different and complementary. In this case you start with a challenge and put that out there for people to come up with proposals for how research can solve it.”
There are no set boundaries for what these challenges might be. “They can be very wide ranging,” says Prof Ferguson. “They can be economic, healthcare, environmental, climate change, housing, and other societal challenges. We are going to start with economic challenges because you’ve got to start somewhere. This is also a very broad area in itself.”
The principal requirement is that the challenge must be worthwhile addressing and must offer clear benefits. “A purely illustrative example of a challenge with economic benefits for Ireland might be in the area of dairy production,” he explains. “You could look at dairy-based food products and the intolerances and allergies to them among consumers. If you could work out a way to decrease the immunogenicity of the products and reduce the allergens that would be very valuable. The solution could be to do with the grass the animals eat or genes or something in the cow’s gut. The project could include a variety of players including farmers, processors, immunologists, chemists, geneticists, retailers and so on.”
The American Chamber of Commerce became involved as a result of a paper published on “Establishing a Grand Innovation Challenge Process for Ireland”.
“Back in 2015 we looked at innovation spend in Ireland, what needed to happen to increase it,” says American Chamber of Commerce vice president Mark Gantly. “One of the recommendations at the time was to introduce challenge-based research funding. Our next step was to hold a workshop in the RIA in January 2017. We invited stakeholders from industry, academia, State bodies and so on to discuss the idea and were very encouraged by the response.”
The provision of up to €500 million in funding, with €180 million of it available over the next five years, in the National Planning Framework prompted further action. “Funding could be available as soon as 2019,” Mr Gantly notes. “It was time to move on from the talks about talks stage and get in gear and be ready to respond to a budget line that we know will become available.”
That budget line could be up to €20 million from the State in 2019. “That has to be matched by industry,” says Mr Gantly. “The May 24th event is to look for ways to move forward and identify challenges. We want industry to come along to it not just with ideas but with line of sight to corporate approval for funding as well. I have been talking to a lot of people and I am very encouraged by the response from industry.”
The attendees at the think-in will bring knowledge and insights from various backgrounds in industry, academia, the public sector, regulation, and innovation. “We are engaging all actors including universities, companies, research centres, and lone inventors,” says Prof Ferguson. “It is very inclusive. Traditional funding schemes are aimed at universities, academics, and companies. Lone inventors tend to be left out. We are trying to encourage them to become involved in this.
“If you look back through history most of the solutions to the grand challenges did not come from the mainstream,” he continues. “If you do analysis of those who file patents in Ireland the largest group is companies. Third-level institutions only come in third. Lone inventors are in second place. This group of highly innovative people have been excluded from research funding up until now and we want to change that. We hope to see a number of challenges emerge from the May 24th event and have projects up and running to address them by mid-summer or early autumn.”