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Funding research into some of the biggest challenges facing developing countries

Science Foundation Ireland is partnering with State agency Irish Aid on projects

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) has partnered with Irish Aid to fund research into some of the most significant challenges facing developing world countries today. Irish Aid is the government’s official international development aid programme, and the research projects are being funded under SFI’s Challenge Funding Programme.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Challenge 2022 will fund projects aimed at delivering solutions which support the achievement of United Nations SDG 13: Climate Action, with particular emphasis on the interconnected challenges of biodiversity loss and environmental degradation covered by SDG 14: Life below water and SDG 15: Life on land.

Applications are being sought at the moment for funding of up to €1 million from project teams with proposals for innovative solutions which may include the development of novel technologies, repurposing existing technologies, or addressing barriers to the deployment of known solutions.

Proposals can also include novel approaches to enable decision and policymaking, such as for planning, measurement, monitoring and evaluation, as well as meaningful inclusion of local communities in these processes, particularly women and youth.


Project teams must include researchers from at least one of the nine countries where Irish Aid operates as well as a societal champion whose role it is to ensure that the project delivers real benefits to society.

The SDG Challenge 2022 will be run in three phases: concept, seed and prize award. Following application review, successful teams will be awarded funding of up to €50,000 over six months to undertake team building, scoping and concept validation activities during the concept phase. They then undergo a rigorous review before receiving additional funding of up to €250,000 in the 12-months seed phase to further validate and prototype their proposed solutions. Finalists then compete for an overall prize of €1 million to further advance their solution toward deployment.

“It’s a privilege to work with Irish Aid,” says SFI science for society director Ruth Freeman. “A lot of research is about solving problems. That’s what excites and motivates researchers. In the SDG Challenge we are looking at specific challenges and how solutions may have science and technology at their heart. When we look at the problems facing countries around the world it is often those in the global south that are feeling most severe impact of climate change. The first call last year was focused on health, and we already have teams working on it.”

Projects funded under that first call include the use of floating treatment wetlands, which are a nature-based solution, to remove pollutants and pathogens from polluted surface water in Vietnam; the development of a technology-enabled care pathway that will empower community health workers in Uganda to deliver first-line primary care for low back pain; and a project to reduce childhood mortality in Malawi through improved diagnosis of pneumonia.

Other projects involve the provision of access to clean water using sustainable solar technologies in South Africa; rapid detection of sepsis to reduce neonatal and maternal mortality in resource-limited environments in Uganda; and the investigation of potential treatments for vision loss and retinal diseases in South Africa; and using data science to scale surgical training in Malawi.

Project in Vietnam

It is critically important that the research teams be collaborative, transnational and interdisciplinary in nature, according to Freeman. “The floating wetlands project in Vietnam highlights the important knowledge that comes from having all parties involved. The team is using nature to clean water. This is an example of how community-based knowledge can help research. This is an example of how bringing multiple perspectives to the table can lead to better outcomes.”

The local perspective is also important, as Freeman explains. “When Irish people think about the problems facing a country like Uganda, lower back pain does not immediately come to mind. Yet, it is a real issue for many people there who engaged in hard manual labour.”

Looking ahead to this year’s challenge, Freeman highlights the importance of including the SDGs covering biodiversity loss and pollution. “There is more and more realisation that climate change is part of a series of parallel crises,” she says . “Biodiversity loss probably needs to be given equal importance. We need to recognise our co-dependence with other species. The other crisis is pollution. We have operated for hundreds of years by dumping our waste into the environment. These things will come back to bite us. We are seeing the impact of pollution everywhere and it is a huge issue in the countries where Irish Aid works. A lot of consumption in the developed world is based on production elsewhere and that produces pollution. We hope to see some really innovative solutions being proposed in these two areas.”

  • The closing date for the SDG Challenge 2022 is September 22nd. sfi.ie