6 research ideas that could transform society and the economy forever

4 Apr 2015

SFI invests in 6 research ideas that could change the world

The Irish Government has committed €30m to 23 major research projects that have the potential to impact society and the economy. Here are six you may want to remember.

Ireland’s Minister for Skills, Research and Innovation, Damien English TD, unveiled the investment in the 23 projects that are part of the SFI Investigators Program, which focuses on Ireland’s society and the economy.

The projects were selected by a competitive peer review involving 400 international scientists after a call for proposals across a number of thematic areas of national and international importance.

Funding for each project will range from €500,000 to €2.3m.

“Their research focuses on areas such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer, animal breeding and disease prevention, ICT and data storage, as well as bioenergy, among other topics,” explained Prof Mark Ferguson, director general of Science Foundation Ireland and chief scientific adviser to the Irish Government.

“These are areas that will make a difference to both Ireland’s economy and society.  All of the successful projects have been peer reviewed by international experts to ensure scientific excellence, and we have funded every project deemed to be of the highest standard internationally.”

Here are brief synopses of six of the funded projects…

1. Feeding the world

“The challenge of increasing wheat production by 70pc to feed the world population in 2050 is great,” explained Prof Fiona Doohan, University College Dublin (UCD). “We have to make a concerted international effort to increase yields, not least by controlling the diseases that reduce yield and contaminate grain with toxins. This project focuses on unravelling novel mechanisms involved in wheat response to stress, and delivering knowledge and tools that can be used in plant breeding and crop biotechnology in order to improve wheat resistance to disease. Consequently, it will contribute to our understanding of plant biology, and to the development of sustainable means for enhancing food productivity.”

2. Curing itchiness

“Worldwide, itch is the most frequent symptom in dermatology, with a significant impact on quality-of-life for patients and their family members,” Prof Martin Steinhoff, UCD, explained. “Therapy-resistant itch is a major medical burden in many diseases (skin, renal, dialysis, liver, leukemias) and elderly people. A major barrier for therapeutic progress is our poor understanding of the molecular mechanisms of itch in humans. To develop new treatments against therapy-resistant itch, we will first identify in a translational setting key cytokines and chemokines in different human itch subtypes. With companies, we will then test in human studies the beneficial effects of treating itch by blocking cytokine/chemokine pathways.”

3. Beyond Moore’s Law

“Increasing the number of transistors on a silicon chip enables the production of faster and smaller mobile and computing devices,” explained Prof Justin Holmes, University College Cork. “However, current and prospective future mobile devices based on existing technology are energy inefficient due to high power consumption and the dissipation of a large amount of heat, leading to wasteful battery usage or the requirement for elaborate cooling systems. This project will develop new nanoscale materials for “energy efficient” electronic devices. Successful implementation of the materials developed in this project could lead to smarter and “greener” electronic gadgets.”

4. Materials stronger than steel

“This aims to develop new modelling tools for Irish industry for more accurate design and assessment of materials and structures,” explained Prof Noel O’Dowd and Prof Sean Leen from the University of Limerick. “The focus will be on welds, which are the most common location of failure in engineering components. The tools will be used to provide tailored combinations of welding and heat treatment parameters, to design material structures at the nano, micro and macro scale. Specific applications are the design for optimum grain size in power-plant steels and improved designs for steel pipelines used in oil and gas offshore platforms.”

5. The next generation of data storage devices

“Our society produces immense quantities of data. In 2050 a hard disk with the diameter equal to the distance between the earth and the moon will be necessary to record all the information produced by humanity,” Prof Stefano Sanvito, Trinity College Dublin, said “For this reason the development of new, denser and faster ways to store information is key to maintain our standard of life. This project will construct a range of designing tools for developing such next generation recording devices. In particular it will create a simulator for fast magnetic memories and a protocol for identifying the most useful materials to fabricate such devices.”

6. Where there is beef

Dr. Donagh Berry, Teagasc, said about their project: “The Agri-Food industry is the largest indigenous industry in Ireland. The objective of this proposal is to achieve the Irish Government’s strategy of increased animal production through: greater exploitation of more precise genetic information, more precise estimation of how each genetic variant affects performance and  development of precision mating plans. The results will be disseminated to industry through low-cost, customised tools and resources, which are also applicable to other species and breeds.”

Invention image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years