Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 October 2018

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Science Foundation Ireland Grants

2:05 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State with responsibility for this issue for coming before the House today. I want to raise the issue of the defunding of the INFANT research centre, a perinatal healthcare centre in University College Cork. It is a Science Foundation Ireland funded research centre that is led by female investigators and the only one of its kind in the State. The centre deals specifically with ensuring better health outcomes for pregnant women and their children and babies, both in uteroand after birth. A decision has been made by Science Foundation Ireland to defund the centre. I will not use any other words to describe the decision. No matter what way it is parsed, it was a decision to defund this vital research centre.

The INFANT centre subscribed to an external process whereby its activities were reviewed by an international panel of experts, chaired by none other than Professor Gordon Smith, head of the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Cambridge University. In its deliberations while examining the work and output of INFANT, the panel clearly stated that the centre should continue to be funded by Science Foundation Ireland. Under a subsequent decision, which is now in the public domain, Science Foundation Ireland instigated its own process. Notwithstanding the rigorous process the research centre has undergone as part of the external review, Science Foundation Ireland decided, based on a second opaque and secretive process, that the INFANT centre should be defunded.

I raise this issue today because there are serious question marks over the Science Foundation Ireland process. It has not been transparent and neither I nor the taxpayers of this country have sufficient insight into the process by which this decision was made. When millions of euro of taxpayers' money are at stake, we need to hear from the Minister of State the reasons the second process was designed, who was in charge of it and whether the director general of SFI oversaw the second oversight panel. It rankles me that two eminently qualified members of the board of governors of INFANT, Dr. Ruth Barrington and Professor Douglas Kell, resigned recently. According to a statement from Dr. Ruth Barrington, a former chief executive of the Health Research Board, the Science Foundation Ireland process was "neither objective nor fair".

I hope that the Minister of State and his officials will have clear oversight of the process. I hope he will give us some hope that he will pour light on the approach taken by Science Foundation Ireland and its director general on this issue.


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