SFI decision to pull funding from INFANT centre follows ‘robust’ process

Founding director of UCC perinatal research body says it was ‘complete surprise’

UCC. SFI has decided not to provide a new round of funding to the University College Cork-based INFANT centre once its current allocation comes to an end next year. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

UCC. SFI has decided not to provide a new round of funding to the University College Cork-based INFANT centre once its current allocation comes to an end next year. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

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Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) said its decision not to provide a new round of funding for a high-profile research centre was made following a robust process.

SFI has decided not to provide a new round of funding to the University College Cork-based INFANT centre once its current allocation comes to an end next year, RTE reported on Monday.

Director general of SFI and Government chief scientific advisor Professor Mark Ferguson told RTE’s Morning Ireland it was “very transparent” in all of its dealings with INFANT.

INFANT is Ireland’s first perinatal research centre. It states its mission is to make pregnancy safer and to improve health outcomes for mothers and babies.

“Sometimes that means making kind of tough decisions like this one where you say actually here are some things that need to be done and here’s an opportunity to compete again,” Prof 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.”

However founding director of INFANT, Professor Louise Kenny,claimed the centre was not given an adequate explanation of what those ‘things’ are.

Best performing

Prof Kenny, who is now an adjunct professor at the centre and pro-vice chancellor at the University of Liverpool told RTE that she was very shocked and disappointed at the decision.

“It came as a complete surprise because up until that point we had no real idea that we had been ranked so low.

“Over the last five years since INFANT was funded, consistently we have been ranked or rated as one of the best performing SFI research centres and in fact the expert scientific review that we had in December strongly and enthusiastically recommended refunding. So it came as a complete shock.”

However, “we weren’t given any reasons, really. We did have the independent expert scientific review of the panel that was composed of experts such as obstetricians and neonatologists and researchers in our area.

“That enthusiastically recommended refunding. We scored very highly. We didn’t have any insight and I still don’t have any insight as to the make-up of the oversight panel that then adjusted those scores and then ranked INFANT as the lowest centre.”

World Class

Former minister of state with responsibility for research Seán Sherlock is calling for greater transparency and an explanation for the decision by SFI.

“It is a world class institute, it is a new institute and I am worried about the fact that SFI has, despite the fact that INFANT has subjected itself to international peer-review, has decided through its own oversight review to defund the centre,” Mr Sherlock told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.

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