SFI awards €53m funding to new research
Science Foundation Ireland also addressed under-representation of female-led projects
“You need to fund investigator-led research at the frontiers,” says Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI director. Photograph: Jason Clarke Photography
Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has awarded €53 million in funding to 71 research projects under its new Frontiers for the Future programme. The programme funds individual-led research projects with an emphasis on areas of high-risk and equally high-reward potential. Funding is also provided for larger scale innovative and collaborative research programmes that have the potential to deliver economic and societal impact.
The projects supported cover a wide range of areas including spinal-cord injury, novel materials, climate change, biodiversity in food production and waste, smart manufacturing, social connectivity, computer graphics, horse breeding, pharmaceutical manufacturing and information security.
“If you think about the whole research ecosystem you need to fund investigator-led research at the frontiers,” says Prof Mark Ferguson, SFI director . “This is critically important because frontier research is at the forefront of creating new knowledge. Of course you need to fund industry-led research in important areas like engineering and AI [artificial intelligence] as well.”
Frontiers for the Future 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 as we move towards our new strategy with annual calls for proposals for individual-led research projects with a focus on discovery, innovation and impact.”
The selection process was highly competitive. “We received over 800 applications and funded 72 of them,” says Ferguson. “If we had the budget we would have funded around 150 of them. That’s an indication of the very high standard. 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.”
The programme also incorporated a gender initiative aimed at addressing the under-representation of female-led research projects in receipt of state and other funding. A novel method of levelling the playing field was devised in this case.
“When we put out the applications for peer review internationally, they receive a score,” says Ferguson. “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. In general, junior investigators tended not to get funding under SFI programmes as the senior researchers would take up all of the available budget.
“Between 25 and 30 per cent of the investigators had never received SFI funding before,” says Ferguson. “If all the funding goes to senior researchers the junior researchers will never come through. 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. 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.”
The mechanism used to address gender balance was also 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.”
The projects funded now could have very important impacts in the future, he says. “Who knows, in the next five or 10 years we could have established Ireland as an international leader in quantum computing as a result of some of the frontier research projects we are funding now. It is important to fund research in areas like that to build capacity for the future.”