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Two calls under the National Challenge Fund to close on May 26th

Challenge funding is a solution-focused approach to direct research that addresses pressing societal and economic problems

Applications for the final two calls under Science Foundation Ireland’s National Challenge Fund close next Friday, May 26th. The two calls are the Future Food Systems Challenge and the Sustainable Communities Challenge, both falling under the theme of the green transition.

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

The National Challenge Fund provides ambitious researchers with the chance to develop solutions to key challenges in the two broad areas of green transition and digital transformation. The €65 million research fund aims to fund approximately 100 research teams across eight separate challenge streams with up to €250,000 over 18 months to develop their ideas. A number of teams in each stream will then be awarded follow-on funding of up to €500,000 before going on to compete for prizes worth €2 million to fund the development of the solution.

It is expected that 24 teams will be funded under the latest calls, while the first 26 teams began work in January and are preparing for their initial reviews at the moment.


“In the first six months of their funding period the emphasis is not on improving the technical solution they are working on but really on engaging with the people affected by the problem they are addressing,” says SFI director of Science for Society Dr Ruth Freeman. “We put a lot of supports in place to help the teams. They might never have worked in this way before. They are exploring problems with stakeholders and coming up with solutions to them. There is a lot of emphasis on engagement with stakeholders to understand problems and see if the proposed solution will work. The training piece is also extremely impactful.”

The teams are trained in design thinking and theory of change to help them reach out to relevant people and develop their skills in interviewing and distilling information from them. “We won’t be surprised if in some cases that means the projects have taken a slight change in direction,” says Freeman. “They may realise the problem isn’t quite what they thought at the outset or that the solution had been tried before and didn’t work. It’s maybe not failing fast but pivoting fast.”

To date 73 teams have been recommended for funding in two calls. “The projects funded so far touch areas that really affect people’s lives every day,” says Freeman. “For example, we have teams working on improving healthcare in different ways – including developing better procedures for diagnosis and modelling of injuries, as well as teams who want to use digital technologies to help deliver healthcare such as speech and language services and care planning for people living with dementia.”

Researchers have also taken up some of the questions posed by the public in SFI’s Creating Our Future project. “We asked people what they wanted researchers to explore to create a better future and it is great to see teams working responding to those ideas such as making active transport easier and safer, improving public transport infrastructure and services, or narrowing the digital gap by keeping different groups of internet users safe and secure online.”

She also points to some of the niche areas which teams are addressing. “In wind power we need to know the best locations for offshore wind farms, but we also need to find a way of repurposing or reusing the windmill blades that will be decommissioned in the coming years. Another interesting case is increasing the number of trees in Ireland – there are great environmental and social reasons for planting trees, but the plastics, fertilisers and pesticides involved can be bad for the environment. There are teams working on how to make that process better and reduce waste.”

There is a strong emphasis on diversity, with the success rate of applicants so far being fairly equal when broken down by gender. “We wanted to be as inclusive as possible and to have the broadest possible range of researchers from different backgrounds.”

It is open to newly qualified PhDs, for example. “Research funding is always hard to come by,” says Freeman. “Getting that first grant can be very difficult. But anyone can have a good idea. This is an opportunity for early career researchers to lead a team and hopefully come up with really interesting solutions and compete for a prize of €2 million. It allows any researcher with an idea who is brave enough to go on this journey into the unknown and to do it as part of a team.”

The first of those €2 million prizes should be awarded in 2025. “I am very optimistic that we will see really important solutions and ideas come through in 2025, 2026 and beyond,” she says.