Research News

Research teams chosen to develop solutions to address UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 11 April, 2022


Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD, and Minister for Overseas Aid and Diaspora, Colm Brophy TD have announced the seven research teams competing in the Science Foundation Ireland SDG Challenge.


Achieving the SDGs lies at the heart of Ireland’s international development policy ‘A Better World,’ as well as being part of SFI’s new strategy ‘Shaping our Future,’ to deliver tangible benefits for society. Under the challenge, run in partnership between SFI and Irish Aid, the seven short-listed teams have been granted €2.47 million to develop innovative solutions in a variety of areas including improving surgical training using data science, treatments for vision loss and retinal diseases, care pathways for back pain, diagnosis of pneumonia and sepsis, as well as addressing water sanitation and pollution.


The seven teams will compete for an overall prize of €1 million to further advance their solution toward deployment. The focus of the SDG Challenge is for the development of innovative solutions that contribute to improved health and well-being, with a specific objective of addressing challenges in countries where Irish Aid works. These projects represent international collaborations between research institutes in Ireland and those in Irish Aid partner countries: Malawi, Uganda, South Africa, and Vietnam.


UCD has strong research and education programmes, underpinned by partnerships with national and international industry and academia, in areas relevant to the SDGs including climate, food security, sustainability, energy and health.


The three projects lead by UCD researchers are all related to Sustainable Development Goal 3, Good Health and Well-being:


Team: Backtrack

Reducing the burden of low back pain using technology enabled care pathways


Team Lead: Associate Professor Cliona O'Sullivan, UCD School of Public Health, Physiotherapy and Sports Science (SPHPSS); Team Co-Lead: Brian Caulfield, UCD SPHPSS; Team Co-Lead (Partner Country): Professor Jerome Kabakyenga, Mbarara University of Science and Technology, Uganda.


Low back pain (LBP) is the leading cause of disability worldwide and accounts for the highest disability burden in low and middle-income countries, where LBP care is not widely available. This project aims to develop a technology-enabled care pathway whereby community health workers in Uganda deliver primary LBP care. Development of a digital clinical decision support system is proposed that enables non-specialist health workers to (1) identify LBP cases that are amenable to self-management, (2) assist the health worker in dispatching tuned self-management advice, and (3) identify cases that should be referred onwards for specialist intervention.


Team: Biotope

Reducing childhood mortality through improved diagnosis of pneumonia


Team Lead: Dr Joe Gallagher, UCD School of Medicine; Team Co-Lead: Dr Chris Watson, Queen’s University Belfast and UCD School of Medicine; Team Co-Lead (Partner Country): Associate Professor Balwani Mbakaya, Mzuzu University, Malawi; Societal Impact Champion: Billy Wilson Nyambolo, Malawi Ministry of Health Malawi.


Childhood pneumonia remains a major cause of morbidity and mortality. In particular there is a need to accurately identify children most at risk and also identify those who do not need antibiotics to prevent antimicrobial resistance. The project will build on pre-existing work in primary care in Malawi. It will use the existing BIOTOPE database and biobank to develop initial models based on artificial intelligence approaches for severity markers and further explore host response biomarkers and technologies for point of care tests. The project capitalises on the increase in access to smartphones and mobile broadband internationally, and the success of malaria point of care tests in reducing antimalarial prescription, which highlights the potential of this approach in Africa.


Team: SolarClean

Providing access to safe, clean water using sustainable solar technologies


Team Lead: Dr Demetra Achilleos, UCD School of Chemistry; Team Co-Lead: Professor Séamus Fanning, UCD SPHPSS; Team Co-Lead (Partner Country): Professor Pieter Gouws, Stellenbosch University, South Africa; Societal Impact Champion: Nick Andrews, Dawn Farm Foods.


Good health and well-being are strongly interlinked with the availability of clean water and sanitation. This project proposes the use of a solar-driven, cost-efficient approach to eliminating substances of emerging concern (SECs) from irrigation water and wastewater streams. The systems will operate without additional chemicals, by using renewable solar energy and waste resources which are readily available worldwide. Such an approach could open new avenues for establishing availability of clean water (SDG6), which promotes healthy lives for all (SDG3), and climate change mitigation (SDG13) by using Earth abundant resources.


UCD had a direct role in the development of the SDGs through the advocacy of Professor Paul Walsh in UCD School of Politics and International Relations, who represented universities as a member of the UN Major Group for Science and Technology in the intergovernmental negotiations on the SDGs.


Through the work of this group the role of academia, science, research and innovation are firmly embedded within the SDGs and UCD has special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council as a Non-Governmental Actor, creating a pathway for ongoing global influence in global public policy. [Read the case study].


Congratulating the competing teams, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris, TD said: “I am delighted to announce the seven teams who will go on to compete as part of the SDG Challenge. SFI’s Challenge Funding Programmes seek to support Ireland’s best and brightest, to develop novel, potentially disruptive, technologies to address significant societal challenges. Today it is about addressing development challenges under the UN SDGs in Irish Aid’s partner countries. The role of SFI, with the support of my department, in running challenge-based funding programmes that bring all of this together to have real world impacts, provides confidence in the future of scientific research.”


Minister for Overseas Aid and Diaspora, Colm Brophy TD, said: “Millions of lives are saved each year as a result of scientific discovery. We have each experienced the benefits, as innovation and research helped us in our fight against Covid-19. That of course built on the knowledge gained by scientists in their live-saving research into HIV, malaria, TB and other viruses. I am excited by this year’s SDG Challenge funding, which will support researchers in both Ireland and Irish Aid partner countries to develop new technologies to help people live healthier lives. I look forward to the work of the seven teams announced today, each cutting edge scientific research projects, making a real difference and wish each of the teams the best of luck.”


Learn about all the SFI SDG Challenge teams.