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A message from our CEO

Rarely has a year generated so much to reflect on as 2020. But despite all the difficulties we faced, both collectively and individually, there is much we can be proud of, particularly how our organisation adapted to this ‘new normal’, with tireless agility, ingenuity, innovation, resilience and resourcefulness.

A picture of HRB CEO Mairead O'Driscoll

Firstly, I’d like to address the HRB’s huge contribution to Ireland’s effort to combat COVID-19. This includes funding and enabling clinical trials to evaluate new and better treatments; supporting research into medical countermeasures, health service readiness, social and policy countermeasures to COVID-19, and quality and patient safety; providing evidence reviews to inform policy, establishing a repository for COVID-19 research information; working with partners to facilitate access to the CSO COVID-19 data hub; and supporting the newly established Office for National Research Ethics Committees (NREC) to expedite ethics reviews for COVID research.

This involved an incredible effort on the part of so many people and groups, and I want to thank everyone involved for their trojan work. Furthermore, all this was delivered seamlessly alongside matters non-COVID, and in ways equally as impactful and wide-ranging. The highlights include:

  • Our system of review panels continuing apace as rigorously and robustly as ever, assessing research funding applications in line with our core principles of integrity, independence, objectivity, quality, professionalism, transparency and fairness
  • Publishing the first report from our National Ability Supports System (NASS), outlining service provision and service demand among people with disabilities
  • Establishing the Office for National Research Ethics Committees, a vital new addition to Ireland’s research environment, which aims to embed a robust, transparent and cohesive research ethics review system that strengthens the national research infrastructure
  • Our continued support in developing strong, patient-focused clinical research infrastructure in Ireland to improve and enhance our health and healthcare system. So far, we’ve invested over €100 million in infrastructure support, and this very investment enabled our readiness for COVID-19
  • Our review of e-cigarette use, which is already informing Department of Health policy on e-cigarette legislation, as well as HSE good practice guidelines on smoking cessation
  • Feedback from public reviews influencing our funding decisions for the first time. This aligns with our plans to place Public and Patient Involvement at the heart of everything we do, so we can improve the quality of research we support and further ensure it’s in the best interests of patients and the general population
  • The HRB National Conference (our first ever online conference), Truth and Trust in Health Research. Held in collaboration with HRB-TMRN, Evidence Synthesis Ireland and Cochrane Ireland, its timely theme, strong programme, excellent speakers and production made it a huge success. Indeed, we even trended on Twitter, which was a delightful cherry on the digital cake

A huge thank you to everyone involved in these outstanding achievements. But special gratitude to the HRB’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and Facilities teams, without whom none of this would have been possible. Within three days of the Government’s work from home announcement on March 13th, they had our entire organisation up and running remotely. That we could pivot so quickly and so efficiently is testament to their expertise and professionalism, as well as the strength and intelligence of their existing systems.

I also want to thank our Board and outgoing Chair, Professor Jane Grimson, for their expert governance and support throughout 2020, the extended Irish health research community (who successfully secured a further €8.2 million in this year’s funding round from Horizon 2020, exceeding the target of €80 million set in 2014 by almost €5 million), academia, policy makers, practitioners, the health system and the general public. All have demonstrated astounding resilience, strength and solidarity in the most difficult of times.

Above all, the pandemic illustrated powerfully the strong link between people’s health, the capacity of our health and social care system, and the economy. We understand the importance of a strong economy to pay for public services, including our health and social care system. Living through a pandemic, we see clearly that a healthy population and high-performing health and social care system are also essential for a functioning economy. 

Finally, and on a more personal note, it was an honour this year to be appointed Chief Executive of the HRB, and to witness first-hand such a great sense of community and purpose. The support and hard work of my colleagues has been invaluable, and that you were all facing challenges of your own in this time makes me even more grateful. No doubt the struggles of 2020 have made our organisation stronger going into 2021 and better able to meet whatever challenges it presents. I am optimistic that the launch of the HRB Strategy 2025 next January will be our most successful yet, delivering further still on our vision of healthy people through excellent research and applied knowledge.

Once again, I thank you all for the essential part you played in the HRB’s 2020. Wishing you and your loved ones a safe and happy Christmas, and a brighter New Year. 

Mairead O’Driscoll

Chief Executive of the HRB