TechWatch editor Emily McDaid sat down with Horizon 2020’s Elaine Groom to explore the EU priorities when it comes to funding food sustainability research.
Sometimes, in science, being a top researcher or innovator isn’t what counts – it’s knowing how to win grants and funding for projects.
The pinnacle of science is when the two coalesce, when the best scientists get the most funding.
Enter the Northern Ireland (NI) contact point for agri-food for the EU funding programme Horizon 2020, Elaine Groom. Groom is based at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), which is known for groundbreaking research on matters in food and agriculture.
But research needs funding, and, when it comes to winning grant money from the EU, she said: “It’s a matter of interpretation.”
She showed me the type of document that researchers need to consult before they can even start a grant application. Dense and authoritative, it needs understanding of the nuanced language used by the EU. Groom advises and coaches aspiring applicants to get their proposals right.
“Writing a grant application isn’t something that can be done in two weeks. It takes months to ensure every tick box that’s needed is checked,” she said.
Originally a microbiologist, Groom has moved to this birds’ eye-view job, enabling her to see trends that are happening in the agri-food space.
Food sustainability, food security and eliminating food waste are all hot areas right now. I wondered what sort of projects the EU wants to fund.
“The first priority is food sustainability. Globally, we need to waste less and use more; how can we eat more locally grown and reared food, stopping practices that damage the environment?” said Groom.
“Number two is making food safer and healthier. Third, new technology and how blockchain, robotics and other innovations can be used throughout the food supply chain.”
She listed off some other research questions that the EU seeks to answer.
- Genetics: “Over decades, we’ve selected crops and animals for farming because they grow quickly. That has narrowed the gene pool – how can we broaden it out again?”
- Oceans: “Exploiting our seas without destroying them.”
- Rural/urban connection: “The food cycle tends to be such: food is grown in rural areas, consumed in urban areas, and the nutrients end up out to sea in the form of waste. How do we make this more of a closed-loop feedback system?”
Groom concluded: “The desire to address these challenges is out there. I help guide researchers in what to apply for, and how to apply for it.”
What tends to be the nature of EU funding?
Groom said: “EU funding is like Championship League – it’s highly competitive but it’s also high-profile if you can get it.”
How many projects do you help per year? What’s the success rate?
“Perhaps 40 potential proposals, of which half will turn into applications,” she said. “The success rate in the agri-food area is around 20pc in Northern Ireland, comparing well with the EU average.”
What sort of projects can you point to as examples?
Groom pointed to projects that were funded last year and started last summer.
Led by The Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, EU-China Safe focuses on improving food safety and reducing food fraud in the EU and China. It is one of the world’s largest food safety projects.
There are also two projects aim at reducing agricultural run-off into the supply of drinking water:
- Ulster University is a partner in Water Protect (innovative tools enabling drinking water protection)
- AFBI is a partner in Fairway (farm systems that produce good water quality for drinking-water supplies)
Groom said: “These projects will cooperate to ensure greater involvement of farmers/citizens in monitoring water quality and reducing pollution. They’ll provide scientific support for relevant EU policies on agriculture and water.”
By Emily McDaid, editor, TechWatch
A version of this article originally appeared on TechWatch