Expert quit centre role after ‘flawed’ funding assessment

By Catherine Shanahan and Elaine Loughlin

A leading expert in the health research landscape said she quit her governance position at a perinatal research centre because the university where it is based failed to challenge Science Foundation Ireland’s decision not to fund it.

Ruth Barrington stepped down as chair of the governance committee at University College Cork’s (UCC) Infant research centre after an SFI funding assessment she describes as “flawed” and “not objective”.

Dr Barrington, who was CEO of the Health Research Board for nine years, said she has “some experience” about how scientific reviews are run and how applications for research funding are made.

“Certainly I have never come across one like this,” she said of SFI’s assessment.

The process involved two reviews; the first by an international scientific panel which conducted a two-day on-site review of INFANT and recommended funding, and the second by an unnamed international panel who conducted a desktop review and did not recommend funding.

“At the time that decision came through last July, I believe it should have been appealed. I consulted with members of the governance committee and the strong view was that it should have been appealed,” said Dr Barrington.

“When UCC failed to do so, I felt I had no choice but to step down.”

UCC failed to clarify why it didn’t appeal the decision.

Dr Barrington, the author of Health, Medicine, and Politics in Ireland 1900- 1970, said Infant would struggle to fund ancillary staff — UCC pays the academic salaries — at a time when it was “really blazing a trail”.

“There are very few centres who have done the work they’ve done in addressing illnesses in pregnancy,” she said.

The SFI funding refusal was raised in the Dáil yesterday by Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and is due to be brought up today by Labour TD Seán Sherlock.

Mr Martin said it “defied logic” that funding would be pulled from “very valuable research” around life threatening conditions such as pre-eclampsia.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would ask the relevant minister to provide a report to Mr Martin and for SFI ”to meet with those in the Infant centre to explain why they did not get the funding on this occasion”.

A leading expert in the health research landscape said she quit her governance position at a perinatal research centre because the university where it is based failed to challenge Science Foundation Ireland’s decision not to fund it.

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