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In the past the HRB had panel members based in Ireland reviewing applications and making funding recommendations. These HRB panel members felt a high degree of confidence in and affiliation with the HRB and in turn were informal ‘HRB ambassadors’. However, following concerns about the high degree of actual and perceived conflicts of interest, panel members based in Ireland were gradually phased out between 2005 and 2009. Whilst this clearly is good practice in a small country, it has led to the unintended consequence that the researchers we fund are not as familiar with HRB processes as they used to be and have less opportunity to learn what kind of questions panels are likely to ask. There also is less opportunity to reinforce trust in the HRB.
In recent years HRB staff noticed a creep of misperceptions about HRB funding practices in the research community. In response, the team further extended the ‘Before you apply’ section of the website, including commissioning two short animated videos setting out what happens before and during a panel meeting.
However, process descriptions leave room for doubt whether the written process is adhered to and cannot match personal experience in terms of building trust. We therefore considered opening panel meeting to observers under certain conditions. In 2019 the HRB surveyed the research community regarding the acceptability of having observers at HRB panel meetings. Three hundred out of 312 survey respondents (96 percent) were in favour of allowing observers to HRB review panels. Ninety five percent of respondents were interested to attend themselves. The concerns raised were deemed to be manageable with certain safeguards.
Given the challenges that allowing individual researchers to attend panel meetings would create, we have instead opted to allow research office staff from our accredited host institutions to attend. A panel meeting was deemed suitable to be observed where:
• it was a scheme funded and managed by HRB only
• the panel meeting did not have an interview component
• the panel meeting was no renewal review, or assessed one application only
A non-disclosure agreement is signed by the institution before the meeting, and conflict of interest rules are enforced. As a result, the pilot went very smoothly for both face to face and virtual meetings, and we intend to continue the practice now that the pilot period has been completed.