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Applications open for final two challenges under the SFI’s National Challenge Fund

Sustainable Communities Challenge seeks solutions to support Ireland’s urban and rural populations, and the Future Food Systems Challenge seeks solutions for sustainable and resilient food systems

Applications are now open for the final two challenges under the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) National Challenge Fund, with a closing date of May 26th. The Sustainable Communities Challenge seeks solutions that will support a sustainable future for Ireland’s urban and rural populations. The Future Food Systems Challenge seeks solutions for sustainable, productive and resilient food systems.

Established under the Government’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP) and funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility, the National Challenge Fund will invest €65 million in research into solutions to eight separate challenges falling under the broad headings of green transition and digital transformation.

The aim is to fund approximately 90 research teams with up to €250,000 over 18 months to develop their ideas. A number of teams are then awarded follow-on funding of up to €500,000 before going on to compete for prizes of between €1 million and €2 million.

“The NRRP was set up to ensure we are more resilient and prepared for major challenges like pandemics in future,” says SFI head of challenge research, education and public engagement Lisa Higgins. “The National Challenge Programme is the only R&D programme funded under the plan, and this represents strong recognition by government of the role research and innovation can play in building resilience.”


She points out that challenge funding is a solution-focused approach to research funding that uses prizes, phases, defined timelines, teamwork, mentorship, and competition to direct research activity towards addressing pressing societal and economic problems.

A key aspect of the National Challenge Fund is the strong emphasis on collaboration. “We want to bring academic research together with collaborators from beyond academia,” says Higgins. “We want to bring about a meeting of minds between researchers and people with deep insights into the challenge to be faced and an understanding of the hurdles to be overcome in solving it. That offers a much greater chance of success.”

Each team must also include a societal champion who brings knowledge not only of the challenge to be addressed but also of the applicability and practicality of any solutions proposed. “The societal champion is really important. They come from outside academia and are equal partners in the team collaborating and co-creating on solution development. Inclusivity is at the core of the process.”

SFI also offers support to research teams to enhance their prospects of success. “We want them to be successful and we spend a lot of time with them. We provide training and other skills development opportunities.”

Teams are already working on the other six challenges which are the 2050 Challenge addressing climate neutrality; Future Digital Challenge; Healthy Environment for All; Energy Innovation; Digital for Resilience; and OurTech which looks at the connections between government, communities and people.

Looking at the current challenges which are open for applications she believes there are great opportunities for innovation in food systems. “There is a need for more sustainable and regenerative food production. Projects could address areas like methane emissions, alternative proteins, food waste, and the overall bioeconomy. Under the Sustainable Communities challenge we are seeking solutions for sustainable futures for urban and rural communities, the built environment, how we interact with one another, transport solutions, resilient infrastructure and so on. We believe there are very good ideas out there that can have a strong impact on society.”

Those ideas can come from the academic researchers or other collaborators on their teams. Or they can look at the ideas put forward by the public to SFI’s Creating Our Future initiative. “We received 18,000 ideas from the public for areas where research should be focused. Research teams can use those ideas to tap into what’s important for people in Ireland.”

The application process is very straightforward. “Teams come to SFI and make the case for why the challenge they want to address is compelling and demonstrate that they understand the area and have the competence to develop a solution. If we think the idea is worth progressing we work with the team to validate the challenge. If they come back later and say they need to change direction, that’s okay. It’s a very agile process.

“At the outset we are hoping to fund about 12 teams under each challenge. After 18 months that will be reduced to three or four teams, and then we will have the final winner.”

Every team will benefit from participation, however. “We have strong evidence that teams which took part in previous challenges funded by SFI have been successful in drawing down funding from the European Innovation Council and other sources for their projects. We have also seen a number of start-ups and spin-outs being established which have raised funding under the Disruptive Technologies Innovation Fund.”