Opinion: a clearer explanation of the CMO's mooted move to academia is required to ensure continuing trust in how research is funded

The fallout from the proposed secondment of outgoing Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan to Trinity College Dublin has inflicted some political pain. Surprisingly, there has been remarkably little analysis about what the debacle says about our university research culture.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, The Irish Examiner's Aoife Moore on the Oireachtas Health Committee's meeting on the proposed secondment of the CMO to TCD

For many years - and certainly through my early years as a researcher - the key function of third level institutions was seen as education. Universities and university staff were tasked with producing graduates. Research was almost seen as an extracurricular activity. Interesting to do if you had a bit of spare time, or even in your spare time.

Despite this, there is an understanding of the power of research to social and economic development which underpins support for the Irish Research Council (IRC), Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and the Health Research Board (HRB).

Make no mistake, funding is a competitive and time consuming process. Our agencies fund demonstrably excellent research by exceptional candidates as judged by international peer review. Securing funding, even funding to supervise a post graduate research students, requires academics to demonstrate they are actively publishing in the area. And these papers must be written whilst also teaching and managing needs of students in an increasingly under resourced system.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, RTÉ political reporter Mary Regan on the decision of Minuster for Health Stephen Donnelly and his Secretary General Robert Watt to turn down an appearance before the Oireachtas Finance Committee.

A key issue then in modern academic life is the ongoing and relentless pressure to publish. At a faculty meeting many years ago, I was advised in no uncertain terms I was are 'only as good as your last paper'. Many funding agencies require those applying for grants to list the papers they have published in the last five years.

Indeed, a key metric in university league tables is the extent to which papers published from an institution in the last five years are referenced by the wider academic community. These league tables are influential and international students make decisions based on the rankings. They are a lucrative income stream that increasingly resource pressed universities value.

The days of research has an optional extra in university life are long passed. Such pressure has given rise to increasingly stressful working conditions. Weeks of work are put into a funding proposal, sometimes even months, with no certainty that funding will arise.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, John McGuinness TD and Chair of the Finance Committee, says questions must be answered on Dr Tony Holohan's proposed move to Trinity College

This makes the current situation all the more perplexing: there is no way research funding of the magnitude suggested could be calmly assumed to arise. The proposed €2 million per annum for 10 years is a very large amount of research funding, particularly in the field of public health.

In the United States, the average size of a project grant awarded by the National Institutes of Health is equivalent to about €500,000, typically payable over two to four years. The European Research Council's prestigious advanced grant scheme awards a maximum of €2.5 million over five years. Either €2m per annum for 10 years was being awarded outside competitive processes or there was a spectacular naivety to the possibility of securing these funds competitively.

All our agencies rely on peer review to make decisions. This process of review is in play for schemes where awards are at the level of €75,000 over four years and are certainly in play for all of the larger funding schemes.

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, Secretary-General of the Department of Health Robert Watt defends his handling of proposed Holohan secondment

The HRB has, of course, publicly distanced itself from any suggestion that it had committed €20 outside of a competitive peer review. That is for good reason. We want to fund the best science we can as a nation and academic community. All of our national agencies receive far more applications than they can ever fund and about one in 10 applications are funded across many schemes.

Investing time and money in funding applications requires that researchers believe and trust in the system. It does not help that this deal was brokered with TCD. Wider international research tells us that there is a positive bias that comes with affiliation to a prestigious university. This can be a sore point and does nothing to support inter institution collaboration - and collaboration is the way forward and essential to positive research culture nationally. Indeed the Covid vaccine emerged from sharing knowledge across institutions globally.

But if supportive and collaborative relations are important between institutions, they are even more important within a university. A full professorship, the level of appointment awarded to the CMO, is the most senior grade available in academic career ladder. Typically appointees would have a track record of funding, an international research profile evidenced by a track record of peer reviewed publications, completed supervisions of many PhD students and provided lots of service to their discipline. Even clinical medicine appointees, paid by the HSE rather than university, are held to these standards. Nationally there are researchers not at this grade who the Health Research Board have designated and funded using their prestigious 'Leader' award scheme.

Funding commitments made outside normal processes damage our emerging research culture

In short, a professorial role is very hard won in the Irish university system. This gives rise to what one of my colleagues refers to as a blood sport: the annual university promotions exercises. In this highly competitive environment, transparency and equity in the allocation of professorial titles is crucial. There are many in TCD and elsewhere in much lower paid junior roles who will be perplexed by the fact that their stronger teaching, research and service CVs do not warrant a professorial appointment.

In much of the narrative around this debacle, the idea of research as a hobby is in evidence. Many wanted to be clear that they didn’t begrudge the CMO’s secondment to ‘a stress-free role’ after the hard yards during the pandemic. One politician commented that no one could blame him for wanting an easier pace of life.

Bu this view of modern academic life is demonstrably false. Our universities are filled with ambitious, achievement oriented researchers striving to drive forward knowledge often on an international stage. Funding commitments made outside normal processes damage our emerging research culture. It is not the way to building a collaborative national research culture by any stretch of the imagination. To avoid this debacle eroding researchers' trust in our funding programmes. a clearer explanation of how this decision came about is required as a matter of urgency.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ