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The National Challenge Fund provides ambitious researchers the chance to make a difference by developing solutions to key challenges in the areas of Green Transition and Digital Transformation.

The National Challenge Fund is a €65M research fund that consists of eight challenges. In total, it aims to fund approximately 90 research teams with up to €250k over 18 months to develop their ideas. Under each challenge stream, a number of teams will then be awarded follow-on funding of up to €500k before going on to compete for prizes between €1-€2m.

The next four challenges under the National Challenge Fund are the Healthy Environment for All Challenge, Energy Innovation Challenge, Digital for Resilience Challenge, and OurTech Challenge. Applications are now open and should be completed in the Sesame system by 1300 Dublin local time on Friday February 10th 2023.

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.

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The National Challenge Fund encourages collaboration between government departments, agencies, enterprise, the academic research community, and societal stakeholders to identify challenges and enable action to address green transition and digitalisation targets set at government level. These partnerships will inform the expected outputs and outcomes to ensure that they are meaningful and relevant to the end user.

It is expected that solutions are inclusive, equitable and sustainable and adhere to the principles of responsible research and innovation.   

The National Challenge Fund was established under the Government’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP), funded by the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility. The fund is coordinated and administered by Science Foundation Ireland.

Green Transition Challenges

Challenge of restoring and maintaining a resilient environment that ensures clean and healthy air, water and soil for humans, animals and plants. (Launched – 07 Nov 2022)

Restoring and maintaining a resilient environment is an inextricable component of the Green Transition and essential for the creation of a healthy and secure future. Environmental degradation exacerbates climate change, threatens health, increases the risk of natural disaster, accelerates biodiversity loss and destabilises societies.  

The Healthy Environment for All Challenge seeks solutions to ensure clean and healthy air, water and soil for humans, animals and plants. 

Under this Challenge, applications would be considered in areas including but not limited to: 

  • Adaptation – solutions to make our environment resilient to current and future impacts of climate change.   
  • Measurement and modelling – solutions to enable improved monitoring of environmental quality parameters for soil, air, water and biodiversity in order to understand and address the sources of environmental damage.  
  • Pollutant prevention and removal – solutions to remove pollutants at source or thoses already in the environment. 
  • Restoration – solutions to restore and protect for future generations our natural environment.
  • Natural capital – solutions to understand the value and benefits of nature for our society and economy. 

Challenge of developing solutions that will accelerate Ireland’s transition to a clean and secure energy system. (Launched – 07 Nov 2022)

 The urgency to accelerate the transition to a clean energy system has never been clearer with existential threats posed to society by climate change and energy security. Increasing the pace of action in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels is essential, with research and innovation playing a central role.  

The Energy Innovation Challenge seeks solutions to accelerate Ireland’s transition to a clean and secure energy system.

Under this Challenge, applications would be considered in areas including but not limited to:

  • Energy Storage – solutions to enable storage and ubiquitous use of energy generated from clean sources in application areas such as grid-level storage, transport and domestic use. 
  • Energy Materials – solutions to advance clean energy technologies based on novel or innovative materials or through improved production and recycling technologies.
  • Energy Efficiency – solutions to reduce our energy usage or to transition to cleaner energy sources, for example, through the reduction of energy usage in high-demand sectors.
  • Low-carbon fuels – solutions for the production, distribution and usage of sustainable, low-carbon fuels, for example, biofuels, synthetic fuels or hydrogen.
  • Energy Management – solutions to address challenges across the full breadth of energy management from the generation, transmission, distribution, and usage of energy.    

Challenge of developing transformative, forward-looking solutions that will contribute to Ireland becoming climate neutral and resilient by 2050. (Launch – Q3 2022)

Ireland’s National Climate Objective commits to pursue and achieve no later than 2050, the transition to a climate-resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy. While many solutions already exist, there is an urgent need and opportunity for technological innovation to accelerate and navigate this transition to achieve this long-term ambition.  

The 2050 Challenge seeks transformative, forward-looking solutions to current and future challenges in Ireland becoming climate neutral and resilient by 2050.  

As illustrative examples, the National Climate Action Plan and the Climate Change Advisory Council highlight the following areas where there is a need for technological innovation: 

  • Zero-/low-carbon fuels – scalable and sustainable alternative fuels (e.g., sustainable biofuels, synthetic fuels) for difficult- to decarbonise areas such as freight transport, aviation and industry processes pose significant challenges in their decarbonisation. 
  • Hydrogen – solutions associated with the clean generation, storage and safe usage of hydrogen to fully exploit Ireland’s potential advantage to produce and supply this clean fuel. 
  • Greenhouse gas removals – nature-based and technology solutions to sustainably capture, store and recycle GHGs from the atmosphere for complete decarbonisation of our society and to limit global temperature rises.  
  • Low-carbon construction materials – solutions to reduce the embodied carbon in the materials used in our built environment and to develop novel and sustainable alternatives.  
  • Energy storage – solutions to increase penetration of renewables, deployment of electric vehicles and electrify difficult-to-decarbonise sectors such as aviation.  

Solutions may be proposed in any sector and must demonstrate the potential for transformative impact in achieving Ireland’s transition to a climate-resilient, biodiversity-rich, environmentally sustainable and climate-neutral economy. 

This broad thematic call is the first of a number of calls that will seek solutions to support Ireland’s Green Transition. Applicants to this call are particularly encouraged to consider novel, forward-looking solutions that could contribute to meeting 2050 objectives. 

Challenge of creating sustainable and inclusive ways for all people to live, be productive and creative, and to thrive in balance with nature, the environment and our planet. (Launch – Q2 2023)

At the heart of the Green Transition and Digital Transformations is imagining how we will live in the future. As society is transformed, we must create sustainable and inclusive ways for all people to live, be productive and creative, as well as to thrive in balance with nature, the environment and our planet.    

The Sustainable Communities Challenge seeks solutions that will support a sustainable future for Ireland’s urban and rural populations. 

Under this Challenge, applications would be considered in areas including but not limited to: 

  • Built environment – solutions that will address the impact of our built environment, for example, through construction materials, energy efficiency and enabling energy neutral or positive energy communities 
  • Transport and mobility – solutions for clean transport in cities, towns and rural communities, in areas such as planning and modelling, novel modes of transport, driving modal shifts and enabling technologies 
  • Resilient infrastructure – Solutions for sustainable provision of power, water, waste management, transport and other services to communities leveraging new technologies or nature-based approaches 

While the Sustainable Communities Challenge falls under the Green Transition stream of the National Challenge Fund, it is acknowledged that many potential solutions will also be aligned with the Digital Transformation. 

Challenge of creating sustainable, productive and resilient food systems. (Launch – Q2 2023)

Greenhouse gases from the agricultural sector represent the largest contribution to Ireland’s Emissions Inventory, but where there remain significant challenges in achieving reductions while maintaining productivity. There are opportunities for innovation across the food value chain, from production to consumption to ensure a sustainable food system for all.  

The Future Food Systems Challenge seeks solutions for sustainable, productive and resilient food systems. 

Under this Challenge, applications would be considered in areas including but not limited to: 

  • Methane emissions – solutions to measure, manage and reduce methane emissions from the agriculture sector.  
  • Sustainable and regenerative agriculture – Solutions that will enable the transformation to a low-input, low-impact agrifood sector, for example, through reduced/alternative fertiliser use, water efficiency, or fewer fossil-based or chemical inputs. 
  • Alternative proteins – Solutions to provide lower impact sources of protein across the food value chain for animals and humans 
  • Food waste/loss – Solutions to reduce food loss and waste across the full breadth of the food supply chain 
  • Bioeconomy – Solutions to transform and reuse biological resources into value-added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products as well as bioenergy 
  • Soil – Solutions to preserve and restore healthy soils as an essential component of the climate transition and a sustainable agricultural sector.     

Digital Transformation Challenges

Challenge to gain deeper insights and better understanding of the origins and potential impacts of future environmental, social or economic scenarios, in order to better prepare for future shock events. (Launched – 07 Nov 2022)

Given the power of modern digital technologies, in particular, the potential to gather and analyse large amounts of data from multiple, disparate, sources, the Digital for Resilience Challenge focuses on supporting research teams to focus on the challenge of enhancing Ireland’s capabilities in crisis prediction & response. The challenge provides researchers the opportunity to explore development of new digitally enabled methods, models and tools to gain deeper insights and better understanding of the origins and potential impacts on future environmental, social or economic scenarios, in order to better prepare for future shock events.  

The Digital for Resilience Challenge will build national capacity in crisis prediction & response, and, by demonstration of impact potential, support efforts to manage key national risk areas and inform national risk management strategies and policy on how our society and economy can be more resilient. This challenge is also aligned to national strategies (incl. Our Public Service 2020 and Civil Service Renewal 2030 Strategy) where the development of foresight capabilities has been identified.

Areas of Interest 

Applications are encouraged to focus on the challenge of enhancing Ireland’s capability in crisis prediction & response. Specifically, how digital technologies (e.g., multi-scale or agent-based modelling and simulation, AI and machine learning, digital twins) can be used to anticipate, monitor and manage shock societal, economic and environmental events (e.g., pandemics, supply/demand disruptions, flooding). 

Given the need for solutions to create value, researchers are encouraged to collaborate across disciplines to gain a deeper understanding of issues and develop more complete value propositions (e.g., environmental, social or economic). Under the Digital for Resilience Challenge, consideration should also be given to the principles of equity, inclusion and diversity, and how these can be reflected in research and form part of measures and recommendations on future resilience. 

The complexity and ubiquity of digital technologies calls for digital products, processes and services to be ethical. Solutions developed as part of the challenge should ensure trust, privacy and security are considered and incorporated at all stages from design to deployment.   

Challenge to strengthen the connections between people, their communities and with government.  (Launched – 07 Nov 2022)

The OurTech Challenge focuses on supporting research teams to address the challenge of enhancing the connections between government, communities and people. The challenge provides researchers the opportunity to explore how digital technologies could enhance government processes and functions, create new value for the public through people-centric digital-first public services, and new ways to strengthen the connections between people, their communities and with government (both local and national). 

OurTech refers to co-created technology-based innovations that empower citizens and communities to connect and engage with local and national government to address societal challenges.

The OurTech Challenge will support several national strategies (e.g., Making Innovation Real, Civil Service Renewal 2030 Strategy, Our Public Service 2020, AI - Here for Good, Connecting Government 2030 and Harnessing Digital – The Digital Ireland Framework) relating to digital transformation in, for example, the public service, and more broadly around the application of AI for societal good. It is envisaged that the challenge will , by demonstration of impact potential, inform national strategies and policies on how our society can be more resilient.

Areas of Interest

Applications are encouraged to focus on the challenge of strengthening the connections the between people, communities, and government based on principles of trust, privacy and security. Under this challenge, areas of interest include (along with illustrative examples of high-level research questions):

  • Knowledge, Learning & Skills - How can access to scientific knowledge and data be made more accessible and equitable? How can remote learning opportunities be made more accessible and impactful? 
  • Trust, Privacy and Security – How can digital technologies build trust between people? Can the effects of misinformation be prevented? How can digital technologies ensure privacy while sharing more data? How can cyber-physical systems be made more robust and secure?
  • Health Systems and Health Care – How can digital technologies enhance the efficiency of delivery and effectiveness of health care? How can digital technologies allow for more holistic approaches to managing physical and mental wellbeing?
  • Data-Driven Public Policy – How can digital technologies be used to develop and promote inclusive, sustainable and ambitious national policies? Can digital technologies use data to assist in the design of more efficient and cohesive public policy?
  • Government Processes and Public Services – How can digital technologies transform the delivery of government processes and services? How can public services be co-created with and realise new value for citizens?
  • Civic Engagement and Social Connections – How can we strengthen engagement between citizens, communities and governments for societal good? How can digital technologies be used to increase the quality of social connections between people and communities?

Challenge of bringing disruptive digital technologies to sectors where there is a need to advance digitalisation or where digitalisation could bring transformational opportunity. (Launch – Q3 2022)

The Future Digital Challenge focuses on supporting research teams to address the challenge of creating and applying disruptive digital technologies that will contribute to our national recovery and resilience.

The challenge provides researchers with an opportunity to work with societal stakeholders to identify digital transformation opportunities, co-create solutions and demonstrate the impact potential that new digital products, processes or services can have in creating a more inclusive and sustainable society. In doing so, the Future Digital Challenge will build leadership in deep tech and, by demonstration of impact potential, inform future approaches, research priorities and policy on how digital transformation can enhance our society and economy.   

Technologies 

Under this challenge, researchers are invited to develop innovative and sustainable products, processes or services, based on cross-cutting digital technologies including, for example: Sensors; Mobile Communication Systems; Internet of Things (IOT); Data (incl., Small, Big, Open) and Analytics (incl., Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning); Distributed Ledger Technology (e.g., Blockchain); XR (i.e., Mixed Reality); Simulation and Digital Twins.  

Areas of Interest 

Applications that identify challenges from any sector are welcome, however, particular focus should be placed on sectors where digitalisation can bring transformational opportunity. Such areas include (along with illustrative examples of high-level research questions): 

  • Science and Knowledge Creation – How can digital technologies, such as AI, be applied to accelerate how new knowledge is created? How can the democratisation of scientific knowledge and data be advanced? 
  • Manufacturing, Value Chains and Logistics – How can digital technologies increase the competitiveness of the Irish manufacturing sector? How can supply chains be made more adaptive and sustainable?  
  • Construction, Buildings and Cities – Can digital technologies increase the efficiency and reduce the environmental impact of the construction sector? How should buildings be designed to better suit our future needs? How can we better design cities? 
  • Agriculture – How can digital technologies increase the productivity and reduce the environmental impact of the agriculture sector? 
  • Transportation – How can route planning be optimized to reduce the emissions from transportation modes? How can public transport be made more accessible and efficient using digital technologies? 
  • Energy and Natural Resource Management – How can energy demands be predicted more reliably, and renewable energy integrated more efficiently and effectively? How can natural capital quantification be undertaken more efficiently using digital technologies?     

Given the need for solutions to create value, researchers are encouraged to collaborate across disciplines to gain deeper understanding of issues and develop more complete value propositions (e.g., environmental, social or economic).  

Contact Us

If you would like to find out more about the National Challenge Fund, or explore opportunities to become involved, please contact Dr Lisa Higgins or Dr Stephen O’Driscoll at challenges@sfi.ie