In a very interesting letter to this paper (IMN, 24/6/02) Dr Ruth Barrington, Chief Executive of our Health Research Board (HRB) gives out to me and tells me not to be calling their research grants “handouts”. They are no such thing, she says.

As a clear example of just how research grants are not handouts, we are then cited the case of Prof Denis O’Mullane of University College Cork, where he recently received e500,000  (Euros, 1 euro is approximately 1 US$, PC) smackeroos by way of a grant from the HRB. But the letter tells us that the good Professor didn’t get it that easily. Oh no, there was genuine competition here, really up against it, the poor man was. Would you believe that before Prof O’Mullane walked away with his cool e0.5 million, he had to beat off no fewer that 103 other contenders for the big prize.

But it is even tougher than that to get a HRB grant. The letter tells us that: “For a prestigious research programme award from the HRB, each application was subjected to rigorous, international peer review by a panel of international experts.”

Oh be Janey, there you are now, and me thinking that these kind of things were easy. I must confess that I have no idea what any of that is supposed to mean, peer review and so on, but it sounds terribly painful, embarrassing even.

So, what was it, you might well wonder, that caused the UCC application to float to the top of all this tough competition and, along with 11 others, win the great prize, the ever-so-hard-to-get HRB grant.

You’d imagine now, wouldn’t you, what with all that peer review stuff and international panels and so on, that to get through all of that you’d want to be talking about something pretty compelling: a new and vital proposal, a dynamic, exciting research programme to seize the imagination and sway international panels and peers alike. Not at all. Would you hold on there now for a minute and take a grip.

All Prof OíMullane had to do was to submit a proposal for the study of the effects that fluoridating their drinking water had on the Irish peasantry over a 50-year period, circa the 1950s to date. And that was it; bang; you win the watch. Now you’re sucking diesel, says the international panel and reviewing peers. Well, you’re sucking fluoridated water anyway, which is much the same thing.

Did it matter at all that there are already reports of about 40,000 similar studies on this subject published in the peer review literature? Not at all; one more is exactly what we need. Or did it matter that the fluoride-quaffing citizens of this State had already forked out over £250,000 on a Forum on Fluoridation in which the recipient of this grant was involved in and whose report is now almost a year overdue? Not at all.

Give the man another half-a-million euros worth of taxpayers’ money and let him off there. We’ll get to the bottom of this old fluoridation thing yet, by God we will. Three million volunteers drinking the stuff three times a day for 50 years; I mean to say is this good or bad? The answer must be there somewhere. It is only a matter of finding it. And listen. There is none of your old Irish begrudgery here, you know. Not at all; the best of good luck to Prof Denis O’Mullane and to the Chief Executive of the Health Research Board, Dr Ruth Barrington. And here’s to them all ‘n  the international panel, and to each and every one of the reviewing peers.

Up Cork and the sky above it, that’s what I say. If you can’t beat them, join them. I am going to submit a few research proposals of my own to our HRB next year and who knows, maybe a lowly GP from Clane could be next to walk away with a cool half-a-million euro handout. Sorry, half-a-million euro research grant.

Why do I keep making that mistake? Let’s see now. Obviously, they like quaint and old-fashioned technologies like fluoridated water. Here’s a protocol summary for them. A single-blinded, randomised double cross-over clinical trial into the efficacy of large doses of syrup of figs in the management of infantile chronic constipation using 16 volunteers. That should be all right. Syrup of figs was all the rage about the same time as fluoridated water. But you need more than one. When you are submitting for a HRB prestigious research grant you need to throw in several proposals. You know what sticklers these international panels of peers can be. How about: a randomised double-blinded single crossover study into the efficiency and safety of large doses of orally-ingested ether for the expulsion of flatus.

I read in an old book that the expulsion of flatus was a most unfortunate side-effect in those given straight ether for the relief of toothache. I am only trying to turn misfortune into a virtue.

Or what about a clinical trial into the efficacy of deeply inhaled asbestos dust in the management of chronic snoring? Ah listen, leave me alone will you. There is money to be made here. When did you say was the closing date for Health Research Board applications?