Is research an elitist activity? I usually answer this question with another: How elitist is creative writing or cooking? At one end of the spectrum, both activities are highly elitist. Nobel laureates in literature or cordon bleu chefs are people set apart by their talent and achievements. But Nobel prizes and accolades for haute cuisine are not won in a vacuum. They are found in cultures which cherish the written word or good food; in societies in which many people write creatively, such as in Ireland, or where there are many good cooks, as in France.
Research is similar to writing or cooking, because it is an activity that can be practised at many levels. There are those whose research is part of the global search for knowledge about health, disease or disability. The criteria by which their research will be judged are the same as those working in similar fields in the most advanced countries. They are an elite, by any standard. But they are unlikely to be numerous unless they work in a climate that is supportive of research, in which many people are undertaking research on a local or national scale and that values the findings of research as the basis on which to improve the care of patients and clients.
The Health Research Board (HRB) has been working to support research at different levels. It supports the elite of our research community through open calls for proposals, national and international peer review of the research proposed, and funding for the best applications. Its main schemes are annual research project grants and, when funding permits, programme awards. Project grants are awarded for three years with maximum funding of €55,000 a year. The HRB is supporting about 160 such projects. Programmes have a value of €500,000 to €1,000,000 over five years. The HRB is currently supporting 16 such research programmes.
The HRB has a major commitment to training young researchers to a high standard. The Board supports about 140 doctoral students through its project and programme awards. It supports a further 60 young people on its fellowship programmes. The HRB offers fellowship awards to post-doctoral scientists, medical and dental practitioners, nurses and midwives and young people from any discipline who wish to develop their skills in health services research. These awards are advertised once a year and are for two- to three-years’ duration.
The HRB is also working to develop that supportive climate for research that is necessary to maximise the potential contribution of researchers in Ireland to global understanding of health, disability and disease, as well as ensuring that our health services are effective and evidence-based. It has established a new division—Research and Development for Health—to ensure that the HRB plays its full part in the implementation of the radical proposals of Making knowledge work for health: A strategy for health research, which was published last year.
The HRB offers part funding on an annual basis for research proposals from health service agencies. This co-funded scheme has helped to kick-start health services research that might otherwise not have taken place. The HRB is also working with the Ireland/Northern Ireland/National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium to develop the capacity of our hospitals to undertake high-quality clinical trials of cancer therapies. We also offer people working in the field of cancer the opportunity to avail of training opportunities in the National Cancer Institute, the world’s best resourced cancer research centre. The HRB is also co-operating with the R&D Office of the health services in Northern Ireland and the Cochrane Collaboration to develop the skills of health professionals in undertaking systematic reviews of research completed and to distil the evidence for clinical care and decision making. As part of this initiative, direct access to the internationally renowned Cochrane Library of systematic reviews has been negotiated for anyone on the island of Ireland with Internet access. (Just log on to http://www.update-software.com/clibng/cliblogon.htm, press log on anonymously and you are in the Library!)
The HRB is also contributing to building a culture of research by its intra-mural research and database activities. The Board is involved in three major international research projects to examine the links between folic acid and neural tube defects, to locate the locus of the gene or genes that predispose to schizophrenia and to establish a genetic basis for alcoholism. These studies, which involve recruitment of volunteers on the island of Ireland willing to donate saliva, blood and information on family histories, are contributing to global knowledge that may help prevent or alleviate these disabilities and conditions.
The HRB’s databases on those treated in our psychiatric hospitals and acute units, treated drug abusers and of persons with an intellectual disability are major sources of information on vulnerable populations and have proved invaluable in making the case for radical changes in services and increases in funding. Two new databases are in the pipeline, one of people with a physical and sensory disability and one of people with autism.
If you would like to know more about our activities—those directed at support for the elite in research as well as those that support a broader range of research activities—why not log on to our website, www.hrb.ie. Queries and suggestions are welcome!