Challenge-based research funding helps teams work on SDGs

Challenge-based research funding helps teams work on SDGs
Tuesday, November 14, 2023 - 14:30

Maynooth University in Ireland, in partnership with Makerere University in Uganda, has been awarded €1 million (US$1.05 million) under a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) research challenge funded by Irish government agencies.

The challenge focused on addressing global challenges related to SDG 3 which aims to: ‘Ensure healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages.’

The two universities won the challenge by coming up with a new approach to identifying sepsis in newborn babies. Sepsis causes 17 neonatal deaths per day in Uganda and existing tests can be difficult to use on babies and may not provide results quickly enough.

The joint project, Neosepsis, is developing a new low-resource sepsis test that can be conducted using a small drop of blood from a heel prick. The team was supported by the Irish Neonatal Health Alliance as its societal impact champion.

The Neosepsis team is adapting an existing technology for the detection of Serum Amyloid A, which is a proven biomarker of infection. They will use the additional funding to move towards regulatory approval in Uganda, manufacturing of the tests and further evaluation studies.

The research was led by Professor Sean Doyle and Dr Nicola Mountford of Maynooth University, with partner team lead Dr Peter Waiswa of Makerere University in Uganda.

“This was a true team effort from Maynooth to Uganda,” said Doyle. “In addition to our research teams, and the hundreds of families involved in initial trials, we also thank Accuplex Diagnostics Limited in Maynooth who contributed their expertise and test device prototypes.”

Childhood pneumonia project

A runner-up prize was awarded to Dr Joseph Gallagher, University College Dublin (UCD) School of Medicine, and Dr Chris Watson, UCD Conway Institute and Queen’s University Belfast, for the BIOTOPE project. In partnership with Dr Balwani Mbakaya of Mzuzu University in Malawi and Professor Cathal Seoighe of University of Galway the team is working to reduce deaths from childhood pneumonia.

“Pneumonia kills more children than any other single disease with an estimated 935,000 deaths per annum. The BIOTOPE project builds on existing work in primary care in Malawi and will use cellular networks and smartphone technology to develop models to help categorise the severity of pneumonia cases for treatment, and work on tests to reduce over-prescription of antibiotics,” reads the UCD press release.

The team will use the additional €893,000 (US$941,579) over two years to improve their machine-learning models, finalise the best candidate biomarkers for disease severity and conduct clinical studies in eight districts.

A long history of development aid

The challenge to develop tech innovations to address the UN SDGs was announced two years ago by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and Irish Aid which is the government’s official international development aid programme.

Ireland has a long history of development aid. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has reported that the country’s total Official Development Assistance increased last year to €2.33 billion, representing 0.64% of GNP. The figure includes aid for nearly 80,000 Ukrainian refugees in Ireland.

Seven teams were shortlisted last year to compete in the SDG 3 challenge. They received a total of €2.47 million in funding for projects such as improving surgical training through data science, treatments for vision loss, care pathways for back pain, diagnosis of pneumonia and addressing water sanitation.

International collaborations

The projects represent international collaborations between research institutes in Ireland and in countries which are in receipt of Irish Aid. The solutions developed by the teams under the programme had to demonstrate tangible impact in one of the partner countries.

UCD had three teams competing. Apart from the runner-up BIOTOPE entry, a second team worked on a project called Backtrack, which looked at reducing the burden of low-back pain using technology-enabled care pathways. It was led by Dr Cliona O’Sullivan, with support from UCD’s Professor Brian Caulfield and Professor Jerome Kabakyenga from Mbarara University of Science and Technology in Uganda.

The final team’s project called SolarClean looked at providing access to safe, clean water using sustainable solar technologies. It was led by Dr Demetra Achilleos, with Professor Séamus Fanning from UCD and Professor Pieter Gouws from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Two teams from the University of Galway were shortlisted. The first entry was called Floating Treatment Wetland, led by Professor Piet Lens, which looked at a nature-based water treatment to reduce health risks from diffuse pollution. The team’s co-lead was Dr Bui Xuan Thanh from Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology in Vietnam.

The second team was called SightSave, which focussed on preventing vision loss due to retinal diseases. It was led by Dr Cormac Flynn, with co-leads Dr Joanne O’Dwyer from Galway and Dr Daemon McClunan from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

A team from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) University of Medicine and Health Sciences investigated scaling surgical training using data science. The team – called Surgical Data Science – was led by Dr Debbi Stanistreet and co-led by Dr Wakisa Mulwafu from Kamuzu University of Health Sciences in Malawi.

Challenge-based research funding

Professor Philip Nolan, director general of SFI, said: “Each of the seven teams has worked incredibly hard and I would like to commend them on their dedication, and to wish them every success. Enabling talented teams to address significant national and global challenges is crucial, which is why challenge-based research funding is of high strategic importance to Ireland.”

A second SDG challenge is now underway, this time dealing with climate change. Dr Abigail Ruth Freeman, director of Science for Society, told University World News that SFI planned to have further iterations of the challenge with Irish Aid.

The SDG challenge is modelled on SFI’s Future Innovator Programme which aims to tackle societal problems through challenge-based funding. The programme has been successful in recent years tackling issues such as plastic pollution, carbon emissions, food waste and chronic pain.

SFI was established in 2000 and legislation is being drawn up to merge it and the Irish Science Council. Responsibility for SFI has been transferred from the enterprise ministry to the higher education and research ministry. Minister Simon Harris said a new research and innovation agency will drive research in all disciplines across the spectrum of arts, engineering, humanities, mathematics, science, social science and others.

Challenge-based research funding helps teams work on SDGs (