FOI request reveals why SFI ended funding for infant research centre

Earlier this month, it was confirmed by Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) that Ireland’s first perinatal research centre was to no longer receive funding from the Government agency after an international body ruled it to be not up to standard.

The Irish Centre for Foetal and Neonatal Translational Research (INFANT) is co-directed by Prof Louise Kenny and Prof Geraldine Boylan, the former of whom is currently based in the UK.

When INFANT launched in 2013, SFI put forward €7.6m in funding over a six-year period, with an additional €6m coming from industry. Going into the next six years, INFANT requested €20m in funding ahead of its next review.

Who made the call?

However, it came as a shock to everyone at INFANT when it was revealed that an international review panel – different to the site review panel – recommended to stop funding without publicly giving a definitive reason.

This made it the only centre out of seven SFI-funded centres not to have funding renewed this year. Now, following a freedom of information (FOI) request obtained by The Times, the reasons have been revealed.

Minutes of the meeting that decided INFANT’s fate showed the scrutiny panel had downgraded it from 4.5 for progress and four for future plans, to three in each. The reasoning for this, it said, was down to “changes of leadership” and the “quality of research”.

“While the site review panel seemed to enthusiastically recommend continued funding, the oversight panel did not agree with this recommendation,” the board minutes read. “This was partially related to concerns articulated by the site panel that the science is not as strongly hypotheses-driven as would be ideal.”

‘Out of kilter with all international norms’

Until now, expert site review panels had visited INFANT every two years since it opened and had praised the centre for its progress, having seen a number of important breakthroughs in infant care, such as an artificially intelligent newborn brain monitoring system.

Kenny has responded sharply to the claims made against INFANT, claiming that there was a significant element of gender bias behind the decision. “Even if there was any merit to [claims made against its leadership], there are male-run research centres in this country that change directors more than the average person changes underwear, yet they continue to have their funding renewed,” she said.

Going on to claim that INFANT had ranked first and second according to SFI’s measuring standards, Kenny went as far as to say the criticisms made by the panel amount to a “slur” and are “out of kilter with all international norms”.

“I’m afraid this only makes the whole process appear more suspect and leaves more questions than answers,” she said.

Troubling data

Data analysis recently published on GitHub regarding the gender breakdown of SFI research funding recipients since the body was founded in 2003 showed that as many as 10 times more men were funded in comparison to women.

On Twitter, Kenny described the data as “devastating and a national embarrassment” and said that SFI’s funding in an “opaque process” is resulting in “massive discrimination”.

The decision to defund INFANT will be a major blow to the University College Cork-based centre and its 100 staff, but SFI has encouraged INFANT to apply for a separate funding competition in 2020, by which time a successful application would bring funding in 2021.

Speaking after the original announcement, SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson said: “This is a robust process but it is a competition and, in all competitions, some people are at the top of the list and some are at the bottom.

“But I think it is really important to emphasise that INFANT is a really good centre. It just needs to address some things.”

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