Wednesday, 3 October 2018
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Science Foundation Ireland Grants
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.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for raising this issue. I am aware that he is a former Minister of State with responsibility for research and innovation and that he has an interest in this area. I visited the very fine centre to which he refers.
Science Foundation Ireland research centre funding for the INFANT centre will cease in May. I welcome the indication from University College Cork that the INFANT centre will continue with research work, having built up a diverse range of national and international funding agencies, industrial partners and philanthropic donors.
As for the background to this case, since 2013 Science Foundation Ireland, SFI, has been building a network of research centres that deliver excellent scientific research, with economic and societal impact in areas of strategic importance to Ireland.
Areas of speciality include pharma, big data, medical research, nano materials, telecommunications, smart manufacturing and, in the case of INFANT, clinical and health research and innovation in pregnancy, birth and early childhood. Science Foundation Ireland’s commitment of €429 million to these research centres is complemented by an industry commitment of €230 million. The research centres are an embodiment of Science Foundation Ireland’s transformational effect on the national research system. They represent major funding awards, linking scientists and engineers in partnerships across 19 research bodies, including all seven universities, and 328 companies throughout Ireland.
Science Foundation Ireland currently supports 17 such research centres. They are approved for funding following a rigorous international peer review process. Once established, each centre is subject to a rigorous on-site review involving international experts every two years. Furthermore, all research centres understood at all times there was not to be any automatic guarantee of additional funding for a new six-year term at the end of their award term. As part of their four-year strategy review, centres were invited to submit a proposal for a second six-year term of research funding. The quality and overall competitiveness of these new funding proposals, from a scientific and impact perspective, were evaluated by the same international experts assessing the centre’s progress to date. In addition, an international oversight panel was involved, whose role was to provide quality assurance to the review process.
In the case of INFANT, the independent international oversight panel recommended that it should not receive immediate refunding. That was the assessment. The independent international oversight panel instead recommended that INFANT proceed to a separate competition to be reviewed against other potential centre applicants in 2020. SFI has followed this recommendation which means SFI’s funding, for the time being, will end in May 2019. The decision, therefore, is the product of a rigorous procedure of evaluation undertaken by a panel of international experts. Through this process, SFI can be assured of an impartial and independent procedure, based on established best international practice. As SFI has run such an international review process in line with best practice, I, as Minister, cannot intervene in the process.
I will revert to the Deputy on two other issues he raised.
The key line in the Minister's response is: "In the case of INFANT, the independent international oversight panel recommended that it should not receive immediate refunding." I know the Minister of State does not wish to deliberately misinform the House. I know notes were prepared for the Minister and I have been in that position. Let us be clear that there are two processes here. One is the international peer review which is the external process. That was chaired by Professor Gordon Smith, one of the most pre-eminent professors of obstetrics and gynaecology in the world, and he enthusiastically recommended refunding without further review.
The Minister of State refers to an international oversight panel. That is SFI's international oversight panel, a second and separate process which is secretive and anonymous and with which none of the researchers or principal investigators involved in INFANT had any dealings. There is something opaque and lacking in transparency in this process. It is for the Minister of State to examine that process on behalf of the taxpayer because I fear that it was deliberately gamed to take out a research centre which is one of the smallest of the seven to hand. The centre was led by women researchers and dealt with women and children. The SFI tried to take out the lowest hanging fruits and thought it was on the path of least resistance. There is an issue of transparency here. Dr. Ruth Barrington and Professor Douglas Kell stood down because they questioned that SFI process.
I implore the Minister to look at this. I am being genuine in the interventions I am making. It is extremely disappointing that UCC did not appeal the decision or back its own female researchers. Why is that? There are serious questions in this regard.
I will deal with two issues I wanted to address in my first response. Is there transparency in the decision on INFANT funding? Science Foundation Ireland has provided detailed written feedback from the international review process to the INFANT centre and UCC, as a lead partner. In addition, SFI met the centre and UCC leadership to provide feedback in July and this information pertaining to the review of the new research proposal is confidential to INFANT. I am not privy to it given the strategic importance of research and the high level of industry collaboration involved.
The Deputy asked why one review panel recommended refunding for INFANT and another did not. That is not the case. The review consisted of a detailed written review by the international experts on the progress of the individual SFI research centres and the proposals for future research outlined in the applications. I am told the international reviewers conducted an on-site review and subsequently wrote a report with a recommendation and scores. The final review process then consisted of an international oversight panel, whose job was to provide quality assurance for the review process and to review the normalising scores of the different international panel reviews of the various research centres. This is important as an on-site panel reviewing the research centres comprised different reviewers. The oversight panel was then charged with ensuring conformity and consistency across all reports and making the final funding recommendations to the SFI executive board.
I was disappointed when I was informed of this matter. I have visited the centre and it is an excellent facility. It is interesting that UCC has not made a comment on this. Is there transparency in the decision on the INFANT funding? To my knowledge, there is. If one review panel recommended funding and the other did not, that is as the case may be.