Dr Roisin Cheshire, Head of Individual led Research at SFI, writes about SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme
As Head of Individual Research at SFI, I am pleased to see the first discovery research awards and projects supported under the newly established SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme announced today by Minister Simon Harris.
SFI has, since its formation, had a programme where individual researchers could apply for funding to carry out oriented basic research. Having such a programme is an attribute of a thriving society and economy. Following a gap in this funding stream and taking into account feedback from the research community, it was decided that there was a critical need for a new individual led research programme which could incorporate both established and mid-career researchers, could help to address gender imbalance and to provide support for Emerging Investigators and those returning to research after a period of leave. Hence, the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme was developed and launched in February 2019. It was designed to enable a broad range of applicants to compete for funding with the eligibility bar set such that independent researchers who were at least 3 years post PhD and senior author on 3 peer review journals could apply. Following a rigorous and competitive international peer review process.
SFI is pleased to continue its partnership with the Geological Survey Ireland (GSI) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who have co-funded some of the grants and we encourage other agencies to come on board as the programme continues. We would like to acknowledge the tremendous support of the research office staff in the Universities and Institutes of Technology and to all of the applicants who took part in this process.
Although we had set out to attract a broad range of applicants, the number of submissions was a lot higher than expected. 484 eligible pre-proposals, worth ~€314M were submitted in advance of the pre-proposal deadline in March 2019. In response, the entire Individual led Research (ILR) team was mobilised to secure three reviews per proposal from the international peer review community. An incredible 1452 reviews were received at the pre-proposal stage from researchers in some of the most prestigious universities in the world. The quality of the proposals was very high which meant that a higher number than expected were proceeded to full proposal stage; (194 applications representing a budget of €132M). The feedback from the written reviews was sent to each applicant and they were encouraged to use it constructively for future applications. SFI prides itself on securing the best, most expert, most relevant reviewers and we value the importance of the expert guidance and constructive criticism to our research community, particularly those at the earlier part of their careers.
190 full proposals (132 Projects and 58 Awards) were received at the full proposal deadline (29th August). The full proposals were subjected to an additional peer review stage, whereby each full proposal received three written reviews and scores from a different cohort of reviewers. Applicants were afforded the opportunity to respond to these reviews through a formal applicant response step. Following international best practice, a number of oversight panels were convened in March/April 2020 to review the fairness of the reviews and to take into consideration the applicant response. The outcome of the full proposal stage was that 121 proposals were recommended for funding, testament to the excellent quality of the full proposals. Of these, 71 were funded utilising SFI available budget of €53M. All written feedback from the postal reviews and the oversight panel along with the final overall score/ band were sent to successful and unsuccessful applicants. Figure 1 below shows the breakdown of Awards and Projects, in terms of numbers of proposals and budget amounts at each stage of the process.
The international review panel/experts were asked to consider the applicant track record, research programme and impact. All proposals received scores between 1 and 5 (half scores allowed) and were weighted based on grant type (Project or Award), and whether the applicant was an emerging investigator or not. The quality of the applications under review was extremely high with very high scores received. Figure 2 shows the numbers of awards and projects in each score band, along with the funding decision and gender breakdown. What is evident from the figure is the high numbers of applicants who scored 4.5 or above, particularly in the Awards stream. The funding threshold, dictated by budget availability, was in the 4-band for both Projects and Awards.
As part of the SFI Gender Strategy, SFI aims to increase the percentage of female award holders funded in the SFI portfolio of awards to 30% by 2020. Ensuring gender equality within the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme is key to achieving this KPI target. From the outset, the SFI Frontiers for the Future Programme aims to increase the number of women awardees within SFI’s funded portfolio of awards and a range of gender equality measures were designed and implemented within the call. First, a language expert reviewed the programme call documents to ensure the language was inclusive. The eligibility criteria were widened to allow a more diverse applicant pool, including applicants with a non-linear career history. The introduction of the Emerging Investigator category allowed applicants with career breaks to put more emphasis on their research. Finally, when ranking applications, in the event of applications receiving the same final score, SFI gave priority in the review process to applications from female lead applicants.
Of the 484 eligible applications, 35% (171) were from female lead applicants. Of these, the international peer review panels recommended that 43 female applicants be funded. SFI has funded 32 female lead applicants, which represents 45% of the total funded grants.