How we choose life-changing research
Ian explains how we select which research projects to fund.
How do we decide which medical research grants to fund? The process takes around 6 months and requires a lot of expertise - but it is there to make sure that your donations are used wisely. Funding research is one of the biggest parts of our work.
As head of research, one of my responsibilities is to manage the process by which we make decisions about which research projects we fund. With a limited and precious purse of donations to spend, it’s essential that we have a rigorous system in place that allows us to make robust decisions and ensure the best value for money that we can.
To do this we run a competition process each year. Researchers apply with a description of the question they want to tackle, the experiments they will do to try and answer it and what resources and money they will need. The application round for 2014 has just closed and we received 92 applications (see the picture!). This is a huge number and reflects the sheer number of research groups looking for funding to carry out vital lung research in the UK.
Over the coming months, these applications will go through several stages of evaluation to determine which are the strongest and will receive funding from us in the summer. The evaluation process follows several steps:
1. Initial evaluation by our scientific committee
Our scientific committee consists of lung researchers from all over the UK, as well as people who have a lung condition or care for someone who does.
It’s the committee’s first job to have a look at the applications we receive and tell us what they think. They do this by giving each application a score between 1 (poor) and 6 (outstanding) and giving any comments they feel are relevant.
Importantly, committee members are not allowed to evaluate any application from their own university, to minimise any bias in scoring. These scores and comments are used to rank applications and we use this ranking to shortlist the best of the bunch.
2. External peer review
Shortlisted applications then go through to the external peer review stage. I'll look at each shortlisted application and identify research experts from all over the world who have particular expertise in the application's subject.
I try to engage experts from far and wide to make sure that they don’t know the applicant and can give an objective opinion. I invite these experts to have a look at the application and tell us what they think.
This evaluation covers a range of questions including whether the experiments are well-designed and will answer the proposed question, whether the research group has the experience and resources to carry out the work it proposes, whether the funding amount requested is realistic and importantly, whether the work would make a difference for people living with the lung condition.
External reviewers write lots of comments in their reviews and also give a score from 1 to 6.
3. Scientific committee meeting and award recommendations
When the external reviews have been completed we hold a meeting of the scientific committee where we discuss the shortlist, talking through opinions from the committee members and from the external peer reviewers.
Once we’ve talked about the merits of each application, I ask all committee members to give each application a final score (again between 1 and 6). This takes into account all the information we’ve received from committee members and external reviewers, and boils it down into a single score from each committee member.
An average score is calculated for each application and this is used to rank them. The committee makes recommendations about which top-ranked applications merit funding and which do not. We then look at the budget available and make as many awards as we can.
The process might sound long and laborious, and it certainly relies on lots of reviewers and committee members working without being paid for it. But with a great deal of effort going into putting an application together and valuable donations to spend, it’s vital that we operate a robust system for judging applications to make sure that our funding decisions are based on sound reasoning.
I’m looking forward to taking this year’s batch of applications through the evaluation process, and seeing which ones transform from ideas on paper to real research projects that could change the lives of people with lung disease.