Gender balance in scientific research is targeted in latest funding round
Science Foundation Ireland has awarded more than €50m to 71 research projects
“It is through investment like this that Ireland will become an innovation leader and provide solutions and opportunities for our society and economy,” says Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI director general. Photograph: Jason Clarke
Forty-five high-risk, high-reward research projects have been awarded €25 million in funding to facilitate highly innovative and novel approaches to research under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Frontiers for the Future programme. A further 26 larger-scale innovative and collaborative research programmes with the potential to deliver economic and societal impact are to receive €28 million in funding.
The high-reward research projects include: the development of probes that highlight specific stretches of DNA inside living cells, which will have applications in assessing cell damage during screening of new drug candidates; understanding how the sugars that naturally coat cancer cells affect how the cancer cells grow and interact with their surroundings; and the development of new additives for animal feed and manure to reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions and get more value from manure.
Among the collaborative programmes are: the development of new therapies for osteoporosis and bone defects; research into how sea lettuce could be grown in coastal regions to “depollute” wastewater and estuaries; and the design of a computerised toolkit that enables self-care for people with dementia to help them remain healthy and independent at home for longer.
“I’m delighted that we are able to fund 71 new research grants through the SFI Frontiers for the Future programme,” says Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI director general. “These are highly skilled, talented and dedicated researchers and it is crucial that we invest in their excellent ideas and research to maintain and build on Ireland’s global standing in research, innovation and discovery.”
Working across 12 higher education institutes, 231 research positions will be funded including 95 postdoctoral scientists, 101 PhD students, 35 research assistants and other staff across a variety of different areas.
According to Ferguson, funding of this kind is essential for a healthy research ecosystem. “You need to fund investigator-led research at the frontiers. It is critically important because frontier research is at the forefront of creating new knowledge. Of course, you need to fund industry-led research as well.”
The programme was established as a result of the consultation process undertaken during the preparation for SFI’s new strategy. “The need for the programme was identified and it was something we could implement immediately,” he says. “We hope to grow it with annual calls for proposals for individual-led research projects with a focus on discovery, innovation and impact. We received over 800 applications and funded 71 of them on this occasion.”
More projects would have been supported had funding been available. “If we had the budget, we would have funded around 150 of them,” says Ferguson. “That’s an indication of the very high standard of applicant. This is a good news story. It demonstrates the capacity we have in our research system. We have people at a very, very high standard and we need to support them.”
A novel feature of the programme is a gender initiative aimed at addressing the underrepresentation of female-led research projects in receipt of State and other funding.
“When we put out the applications for peer review internationally, they receive a score,” Ferguson says. “If one project gets 85 out of 100 and another scores 87 there is essentially no difference between them. But if one gets funded and the other doesn’t that is an issue. What we have done is bracketed applications in five-point ranges. Then we said we would preferentially fund women if we were short of budget in that cohort. This is perfectly reasonable as all the projects involved are of broadly equal standard. In doing that we have ended up with 45 per cent of the projects funded being led by women.”
There has been no decrease in standard, he says: “When the scores are so close as to make no difference and we gave preference to the women in the range we got close to a 50-50 gender balance. That is in line with the international literature on overcoming unconscious bias. There has been no change in the standard and we are very pleased with the outcome. We have been able to address the gender imbalance that has plagued the system for so long.”
Another objective was to fund more early-stage researchers. More junior investigators have tended not to get funding under SFI programmes as the projects led by senior researchers have taken up all available budget. In the case of Frontiers for the Future, however, almost 30 per cent of the investigators had never received SFI funding before.
The mechanism used to address gender balance was employed to give preferential selection to the junior researchers. “If we have 20 people in a bracket and the budget to support 10 of them, the first thing we do is fund women researchers and the next thing we do is fund junior investigators,” says Ferguson
“If all the funding goes to senior researchers the junior researchers will never come through,” he says. “But we are really pleased to see these up and coming stars coming through in the Frontiers for the Future programme. These people really do cut the mustard but they haven’t got funding before because they didn’t have a track record to support their applications. We are giving them that track record and who knows what they will go on to do with that in future.”
This levelling up of the playing field for female and early-stage researchers will have implications for the future, Ferguson adds. “The funding will support researchers who are already carrying out excellent work in Ireland, as well as those in the early stages of their research careers who hold incredible potential. It is through investment like this that Ireland will become an innovation leader and provide solutions and opportunities for our society and economy.”