Challenge-based funding is a solution-focused approach to research funding that uses prizes, strict timelines, teamwork and competition to direct research activities at ambitious societal problems.
Challenge funding differs in two important ways from more traditional forms of research funding:
The SFI Future Innovator Prize supports a “bottom-up” approach to challenge definition. This approach is different to other challenge funds or prizes where a challenge is defined at the outset in a so-called “top-down” way. The Innovator Prize is intended to support the development of novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant societal challenges. In this context, it makes sense to enable those same innovators to approach the definition of challenges from an unconventional perspective also.
Ireland’s advanced, agile and highly networked innovation ecosystem means that challenge-based funding can amplify our innovation capabilities to create sustainable, equitable and innovation-led growth. This has the potential to not only drive societal and economic impact here in Ireland but also give Ireland a unique advantage in addressing challenges that have global implications.
The Irish Government has recognised the importance of addressing global and national challenges and has actioned the use of challenge funding approaches in this regard, in both the science strategy, Innovation 2020 and Government’s National Development Plan 2018-2027 (Project 2040). In Project 2040, four key funds were announced committing €4bn to disruptive technologies, climate action, rural development and urban regeneration. The plan aims to achieve ten National Strategic Outcomes (NSOs), built on the overarching themes of wellbeing, equality and opportunity. The National Planning Framework (NPF) also highlights the significant alignment between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which the government has committed to support, and the NSOs. Areas of alignment include climate action, clean energy, sustainable cities and communities, economic growth, reduced inequalities and innovation and infrastructure, as well as education and health. A number of these NSOs and SDGs will only be addressed by fostering innovative solutions based on cutting-edge scientific research including those, for example, in energy and the environment.
The SFI Future Innovator Prize is intended to support close collaboration between researchers and solution beneficiaries so that relevant, meaningful and important challenges can be identified and validated. In this context, it is expected that the solutions are developed in collaboration with beneficiaries to maximise their societal impact potential. The inclusion of this expertise should serve to assist teams to navigate non-technical issues relating to challenges and solutions such as stakeholder engagement and barrier identification. It may also enhance the technical skill set of the team with non-technical skills such as innovation and entrepreneurship.
Challenge teams should be strongly committed to applying interdisciplinary and convergent thinking to develop unconventional approaches to the identification of challenges and to the development of novel, potentially disruptive, solutions. Given the focus of the prize on solution delivery, the technical capabilities of teams should include design and prototyping. Final deployment of a solution should occur within a 1-year timeframe after the end of Prize Award phase.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and SFI are engaging in a joint initiative to incentivize researchers in Ireland to address global challenges in achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), specifically focusing on delivering impact in countries where Ireland’s official development assistance (ODA) is directed.