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First challenges set under €65m National Challenge Fund open for application from research teams

National Challenge Fund is an initiative under the Government’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan, funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility and managed by Science Foundation Ireland

The first two challenges set under the €65 million National Challenge Fund are now open for application from research teams with a closing date of October 31st next. The first is the 2050 Challenge to develop transformative, forward-looking solutions for Ireland to become climate neutral and resilient by 2050. The second is the Future Digital Challenge which is aimed at realising transformational societal and economic impact from disruptive digital technologies.

Aimed at progressing research-driven solutions in the areas of green transition and digital transformation, the National Challenge Fund is an initiative under the government’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan, funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility and managed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Successful research teams will receive funding of up to €250,000 along with training to accelerate the development of their idea. A number of teams will then be selected as finalists and receive up to €500,000 to further develop their idea before an overall winner is selected for €1 million prize awards in each of the two challenges.

Research teams can be led by post-doctoral, early career or established researchers, and will consist of a minimum of two academic researchers with complementary skill sets. Once selected for funding the teams must also include a member who will bring specific knowledge or experience of the societal challenge the team will address.


“We decided to try challenge funding way back in 2018,” says Dr Ruth Freeman, SFI director of Science for Society. “Since then we have run a number of programmes on topics like plastics, zero emissions and AI. Over the past three to four years we have been trying to shape best practice on how to do challenge funding in Ireland.”

She explains that this form of funding is quite new to Ireland. It is a solutions-focused approach to research funding that empowers researchers to find solutions to societal and economic problems. “It involved whole new ways of doing things for Irish researchers, and we had to find ways to support them with training and so on. The researchers have to look for things that might be coming down the track. That can be quite daunting but all of the researchers who have participated in previous challenges say it has been transformative for their careers and how they think.”

Having proven the concept the opportunity came up to talk to the government and the European Commission about much larger scale challenge funding. “The new National Challenge Fund brings it to the next level,” says Freeman. “We now have funding to run a really exciting programme over the next five years. That opens up a whole range of new areas to fund research in.”

The aim is to fund up to 100 teams over the five years. “Those teams will be made up of people with deep expertise on the subject as well as a societal champion who will represent the interests of the end-user,” she adds. “Take zero carbon farming, for example. If a team is proposing something for agriculture, is it implementable?”

Dr Freeman believes it should be no surprise that climate change is among the first challenges to be addressed. “This is the overarching challenge for all of us. We are starting with a broad call. Researchers could have solutions relating to energy efficiency, circular economy or agricultural emissions. We are not looking for overarching solutions. We have seen this with Covid-19. A crisis can motivate the research community to come up with solutions that may not have come to the fore in a less pressurised environment. We hope that the projects supported by the fund will contribute to meeting the climate challenge. In reality we need everything to contribute if we are to get to net zero.”

The future digital challenge will look at how it addresses the need to ensure that disruptive technologies have a positive impact on society. “Have we had discussions at community level about how we best deploy these technologies?” she asks. “I don’t think we have. This type of challenge funding allows that conversation to take place.”

Future challenges will cover areas such as a healthy environment for all; energy innovation; sustainable communities; future food systems; digital for resilience; and technology strengthening the connections between people, their communities and with government.

“These are fairly self-evident,” says Dr Freeman. “We looked at the key policy areas for Ireland, the EU, and at global levels. We have taken into account things like the UN resolution on the human right to a clean and healthy environment. We are also addressing the biodiversity crisis and other big issues for society. We want to bring all stakeholders into the discussion, and this will hopefully help guide us in what we do over the next five years.”