Science Foundation Ireland outlines how researchers can help tackle Covid-19
Plan involves collating all information, providing financial support and linking various stakeholders involved in tackling the crisis
Prof Mark Ferguson: “There is a huge amount of goodwill out there in the research community, but sometimes they aren’t aware of the problems that need to be solved.” Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography.
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has developed a five-point plan which outlines key activities where the research community can make a positive contribution to the national response to Covid-19.
Under the plan SFI will collate information from international sources relating to Covid-19, curate information on the problems to be solved, provide financial support for Irish researchers and innovators to develop solutions to those problems, facilitate connections between the various stakeholders involved in tackling the crisis, and foster collaboration between researchers in Ireland and around the world.
“We will help curate the challenge,” says SFI director general Mark Ferguson. “There is a huge amount of goodwill out there in the research community, but sometimes they aren’t aware of the problems that need to be solved. We will bring the people with the problems together with the researchers, who may be able to solve them.
“It’s all about the here and now and dealing effectively with the current crisis. In best-case scenario we may be able to save lives, allow people to continue working normally, and help the economy recover in time.”
Collating research information is also important. SFI will continuously review national and international literature to keep abreast of the latest developments and innovations relating to Covid-19.
“We are putting together a resource where people can go to for information,” says Ferguson. “There are lots of publications and research papers out there, and we are going to compile listings of them in one centralised resource.
“The beta version is already up on our website, but it’s not searchable at the moment as the site wasn’t designed for that. This will give Irish researchers information on what’s going on around the world. There is no point in them working on stuff that is already being done.”
Funding information will also be made available. “An awful lot of organisations around the world are providing funding. We are more agile than most, but some of them would be better than us. We will provide information on sources of funding for researchers such as the Wellcome Trust in the UK and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We will also enable researchers to connect with others for collaborative efforts. We are being proactive about connecting people nationally and internationally.”
SFI, along with Enterprise Ireland and the IDA, is also leading a call for proposals under the Rapid Response Research and Innovation Programme for researchers and innovators to make proposals for projects to support efforts to reduce the impact of Covid-19.
The programme differs from others in its speed of response.
“Perfect is the enemy of good,” says SFI director Mark Ferguson, quoting Voltaire. “We aim to give a decision within 14 days. There is no reduction in standards, and we will do an international peer review. We will just do it quicker.
“There is a simplified application form which just asks what problem is to be solved, how it is proposed to be solved, who is on the research team and so on. We have assembled a team of international reviewers who have promised to turn around reviews within 24 hours.”
“Speed is important but so is quality,” he adds. “It’s not about fast and sloppy. It’s about fast, efficient and effective. We will look at proposals and say if it’s not worthwhile, if it’s good enough to fund, or if it’s high risk but worth funding anyway because of the potential benefits.
“We have also been in touch with the Northern Ireland Department of the Economy. They have allocated money to enable researchers there to collaborate in the call. We also want to encourage international collaborations, and we will fund the bit that’s carried out in Ireland.”
He explains that projects don’t have to directly address treatments or vaccines for the virus.
“There are 39 vaccine candidates, more than 60 treatments and a whole load of diagnostic kits in development around the world at the moment. But there are lots of other problems associated with the crisis that require solutions. How do people deliver education remotely? How do you manage to work remotely? There are also supply chain and broadband capacity issues. We are interested in everything to do with the crisis.”
And those issues will change over time. “The call will remain open as long as necessary,” says Ferguson. “Right now it’s about saving people’s lives and preventing the health service from being overwhelmed, but it will eventually move on to how we get the economy up and running again.”