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SFI harnesses pandemic to drive funder collaboration

Science Foundation Ireland’s deputy director-general finds ‘silver lining’ in pandemic disruption

Science Foundation Ireland has used the disruption of the Covid-19 crisis to reform how it delivers money to researchers.

According to SFI deputy director-general Ciarán Seoighe, speaking at an event organised by the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, the foundation “tried to use the pandemic as a catalyst to increase collaboration between funders”.

One “silver lining” of the pandemic is that funders managed to work together faster, setting up and issuing new joint calls through a simpler process—with no complex application forms—in a matter of weeks, he told the 8 March online meeting.

Another innovation, he said, was trying out the “problem curation methodology”, whereby the funder asked a specific sector what problems they needed solved and then “the academic community rallied around that” to find experts to work on those.

This worked so well for research on health problems that Seoighe said he wished SFI was “faster in terms of problem curation—solving problems for other people”.

Learning lessons

In terms of learning lessons, he underlined “the importance of collaboration across the system” and stressed that “we don’t want to lose that—we want to enhance that” after the crisis is past.

Wins to date include boosting all-island cooperation in Ireland, and co-funding of coronavirus academic and industry research between the republic and the UK. But Seoighe said it might be too early to draw a definite conclusion on how the sector should transform.

“It has affected researchers in different fields, in different ways,” he said, and there will need to be conversations on how to address those different impacts.

Orla Feeley, vice president for research, innovation and impact at Ireland’s University College Dublin, also highlighted the importance of speed in crisis research funding.

“We very quickly managed to get money out there for projects in this area nationally, and that was very important,” she said, as was building on successful international collaborations.

Feeley also said that small amounts of funding can make a “huge difference” to individual PhD students in need of extensions.

She added that there is a need for “national governments to understand the vital importance of research” and support a broad base of research across different topics and careers stages.