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A look behind the scenes – how Alzheimer’s Research UK decides what research to fund

Dr Lauren Walker

Earlier this year, we offered dementia researchers in the early stages of their career a chance to sit in on a meeting of our Grant Review Board.  Dr Lauren Walker took the opportunity to find out more about how we make sure your donations support the most promising science.

I am a researcher in the early stages of my career in dementia research at Newcastle University.  When I heard about the chance to observe an Alzheimer’s Research UK Grant Review Board meeting, I thought it was an opportunity too good to pass up. I filled out the short application form and kept my fingers crossed that I would be selected!

These meetings are where an expert panel assesses the merits of new research ideas. After two days of deliberations, the Grant Review Board recommends how to allocate money raised by Alzheimer’s Research UK’s tireless volunteers.

Armies of people raise vital funds from a wide variety of activities such as Running Down Dementia and pledging to run 100km over the summer, jumping out of aeroplanes, and bejazzling beards, so it is important that this money is directed to the research that has the best chance of leading to new ways to help people affected by dementia.

What is the Grant Review Board (GRB)?

So who are the best people to assess the grant applications submitted to Alzheimer’s Research UK for consideration?  The GRB is a panel of world-renowned scientists (currently 20 members) with an incredibly broad range of expertise and knowledge in dementia. Panel members voluntarily give their time to provide a rigorous review of grant applications and advise   Alzheimer’s Research UK’s Board of Trustees which projects to fund.

What is involved in the application process?

When I found out I had been selected to observe a GRB meeting I set about researching the charity’s grant application process to give me more of an idea of what to expect. Alzheimer’s Research UK has several grant schemes ranging from targeted £50,000 Pilot Projects to Major Project Grants costing up to £1 million and lasting as long as five years.  As the charity receives many more applications than they can fund, there are several hurdles to overcome before an application is even discussed at the GRB meeting.

First, each application is initially ‘triaged’ by board members with expertise in that research area. Those proposals that are judged to fulfil the eligibility criteria and fall under the charity’s research remit are sent out for external review by dementia researchers with specific expertise, who conduct a detailed review of the application. Comments are then sent back to each applicant and they have the chance to address these before the application is discussed at the GRB meeting.

Applications that involve people participating in a research study are also reviewed by ‘lay reviewers’. These volunteers, who have personal experience of dementia, scrutinise applications to ensure a proposal places the welfare and comfort of participants at the heart of a study’s design.

What happens at the GRB meeting?

The GRB meets twice a year to discuss research applications that have been submitted within the previous six months.

As I arrived at the meeting in London, I was initially slightly intimidated, as this panel has the responsibility of recommending which research projects to fund and which ones need more work (a daunting thought for a researcher hoping to develop her own ideas for potential grant applications in the future!).

However, when we arrived we were made to feel very welcome, and the structure of the meeting was explained to us.

There are quite a number of applications to be discussed at each meeting so each proposal is allocated a set amount of time, which the Chair, Prof Tara Spires-Jones ensures is adhered to, maintaining fairness. Each application is assigned two board members who present it to the rest of the board, and each application is assessed for specific criteria:

  • Clarity and structure of the outline.
  • Scientific quality of the proposed experiments.
  • The research team’s ability to conduct the work.
  • Whether the work represents value for money.

Both allocated board members give their thoughts on the good and bad points of each application and outline external reviewers’ comments and the applicant’s replies to these.

The board members are then asked to score the grant between 1-5, with a score of 1 representing an excellent grant, which is internationally competitive and will hopefully provide results that will significantly advance current knowledge.

The integrity of the review process is maintained throughout the meeting and the Board take steps to avoid any potential conflict of interest. Board members that are from the same university or are close collaborators with the applicant are temporarily asked to leave the room while that grant is being discussed.

What struck me most when observing the meeting was the transparency in which all of the applications were presented by the board, and if there was any ambiguity related to the application, clarification of particular points or justification of costs could be requested from the applicant.

As a scientist in the early stages of my research career it was an invaluable experience to observe a GRB meeting and I’d encourage other early career researchers to take full advantage of this unique experience. Gaining first-hand knowledge of what is required to make a successful grant application will hopefully help me in my future career.

Alzheimer’s Research UK is a world leading charity, and will continue to fund cutting-edge research thanks to the time and expertise of the GRB and external reviewers who recommend the best research projects to fund, which will ultimately make a difference to the lives of people living with dementia.

Every year we receive many more applications than we are able to fund. Help us to power even more pioneering research by donating to support our work.

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