Anger at 'lack of transparency' as research centre fails to secure funding

An ‘utter lack of transparency’ around the funding process was behind the decision of two board members of a perinatal research clinic to quit. It was the only one of seven centres whose bids for funding failed, writes Catherine Shanahan

Anger at 'lack of transparency' as research centre fails to secure funding

An ‘utter lack of transparency’ around the funding process was behind the decision of two board members of a perinatal research clinic to quit. It was the only one of seven centres whose bids for funding failed, writes Catherine Shanahan

Two members of the board of governors of a groundbreaking perinatal research centre quit in the wake of a decision by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) not to award it funding.

British biochemist Douglas Kell, a professor of bioanalytical sciences in the School of Chemistry at the University of Manchester, resigned from the board of governors of University College Cork’s INFANT research centre last August.

He said he had followed in the footsteps of board chair Ruth Barrington, who had resigned a couple of weeks previously.

Prof Kell said he had quit in protest at “an utter lack of transparency” around the SFI funding process and at UCC’s failure to appeal the SFI decision.

UCC should have been prioritising INFANT and for some reason, declined to do so,” he said.

The Irish Examiner asked UCC why it hadn’t appealed the decision but its response didn’t address the query.

Instead it elaborated on INFANT’s considerable achievements to date, with support from SFI “a significant catalyst for major growth and development”.

The INFANT centre was among seven SFI research centres established in 2013 that secured six-year terms of funding and the only one of the seven whose application for second-term funding, from 2019-2025, was unsuccessful.

Last month, INFANT’s “impressive” scientific contribution to the world of science was honoured in a commemorative stamp by An Post.

The co-founders of INFANT, consultant obstetrician/gynaecologist Louise Kenny and Geraldine Boylan, UCC professor of neonatal physiology, winners in 2015 of SFI’s Joint Researchers of the Year award, said they were extremely disappointed with the SFI decision.

Geraldine Boylan and Louise Kenny
Geraldine Boylan and Louise Kenny

Prof Kenny, pro-vice-chancellor of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool and adjunct professor at INFANT, said she believes the SFI decision was “political”.

“To pretend it’s about the science is insulting and damaging to the INFANT centre,” she said.

Prof Kenny said a rigorous on-site review by a panel of international scientific peers had “enthusiastically” recommended funding. A separate international oversight panel said INFANT should try for funding next year.

Prof Kenny said they had “no insight” into the second leg of the process, that it was conducted by “an anonymous panel”. “They did all our scores down and in some cases halved them.

I would rather if [SFI] just came out and said they don’t have the money to fund us. It would be less damaging.

Prof Boylan said they were the smallest of the centres to apply for funding and the only one working in women and children’s health, “so we are not going to have the same output and deliverables”. Some of the other centres focus on renewable energy, photonics (eg, fibre optics), and pharmabiotics.

“We are very disappointed but we have diversified so much over the years that we have other income streams and we have such strong momentum now that we’ll just consolidate for the next year or two,” said Prof Boylan.

“We can’t let something like this stop us in our tracks.”

Labour TD Sean Sherlock, who oversaw the launch of INFANT as Minister of State for Research and Innovation in 2013, said SFI had “defunded an excellent research centre whose work had led to better outcomes for women and babies”.

It sends a signal that female-led research centres, particularly in Ireland, are dispensable,” he said.

Mr Sherlock queried “the legitimacy of the SFI internal process and its secretiveness” as the names of the international oversight panel are kept under wraps. He said he understood the oversight panel conducted “a desktop review” rather than “a tyre-kicking exercise”.

Mark Ferguson, director general of SFI, confirmed the international review is a desktop exercise, albeit a comprehensive one.

He said INFANT had received substantial feedback in relation to the oversight review and that the names of the international panel were known to the INFANT team.

“It is not correct to say it is an anonymous panel. They are known to the people they are reviewing.”

Prof Ferguson said it “wouldn’t be normal practice” to release the panel’s names into the public domain but that “they can be named if the board (of SFI) chooses to do so”.

Mr Ferguson said the INFANT application involved €26m in funding over six years. The decision not to award it was “not about the work they have done, we are not questioning that at all”, but followed an assessment of its latest funding proposal. He said INFANT has been invited to submit a revised proposal for funding to the next open competition for research centres.

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