Guest blog

Don’t just see, observe.

Blog from Dr Josie Fullerton

If you are ever given the opportunity to observe a Grant Review Board, take it. As a Post Doc researcher, I can’t begin to describe just how useful this experience has been for me, although I’m going to try and do that just now…

The Alzheimer’s Research UK Grant Review Board

Twice a year, a group of renowned dementia research experts meet for the Alzheimer’s Research UK Grant Review Board. At this meeting, grant applications are discussed and judged by the Board members. The outcomes are then used by the Alzheimer’s Research UK Board of Trustees to decide which projects to fund. Alzheimer’s Research UK offers early career researchers (ECRs) the opportunity to observe their Grant Review Board. Applications open shortly before the meetings take place.

This opportunity was brilliant. Definitely daunting, but as an ECR with one small project grant under my belt, it was a very positive experience. The number of chances to observe a review board are slim, so hopefully this commentary will help others but also describe what I found useful, and what has really stuck with me.

The process

Prior to the Grant review meeting, grants over £50K are peer reviewed and the applicants were given the opportunity to rebut any comments/queries. After the rebuttals have been received the Board members are given the applications, reviews and rebuttals to read in advance of the meeting.

I observed the Board discuss Major project and Pilot project grant applications. Each application was presented to the panel by two Board members, the application was discussed in depth, and the presenters then gave their rating from 1 (very good) to 5 (poor). The rest of the Board members then scored the applications anonymously and at the end of the meeting the average score was calculated to decide if the application was to be funded, invited for resubmission, or rejected.

First impressions count

During the meeting, it was clear that a strong and sharp title was hugely important. As we all know some titles can go on forever or can be so ridiculously confusing that no one could hazard a guess what the rest of the application was about! But a solid, attention-grabbing title gave any application that initial push in the right direction. Occasionally the background of an application can be long and waffly, which put reviewers off. The Board discussed that a background must be focused and straight to the point and lead the reader to the aims and central hypothesis of the study, which must be clear and not overly complex.

The proposal

When discussing the proposals, there were key details the Grant Review Board kept looking for in each application. Firstly, the duration of a project is important – is it overambitious or too low risk? Does there seem to be a minimal level of work for the time stated? It is important to consider the balance of being overly optimistic and packing too much in, compared to an easy work load which could be achieved within the first few weeks – the proposal must have a realistic but impressive work load!

Obviously, the cost of the project is important. The costing needs to be realistic and there must be a clear breakdown of consumables. If salaries are part of the cost breakdown, you need to consider the role of each applicant in the project. Furthermore, if a named person has been put on the application, does the CV match the techniques and knowledge required for the particular post? Are there technical staff who may require training – and has this been factored into the application or timeline?

Study essentials

All through University we are reminded of the importance of controls and n numbers – are the controls appropriate? Do you have enough controls? How many do you have in each experimental group? This does not change for grant applications, it is essential! The Board members often commented on the lack of appropriate controls and small group sizes. Another thing that stood out for me was the importance of power analysis (…which was actually a comment during my PhD viva…) – it was vital that the project proposal contained some form of power analysis and the study was well-powered.

In addition, it is important to consider how relevant your experimental model is to your study, have you justified the chosen model for your proposal? Or perhaps you have selected a particular treatment or technique, therefore you must ensure that this approach is scientifically correct. Or if you are investigating a single target or timepoint this must be explained – why this specific target/time, why not multiple targets or timepoints?! Don’t just randomly pick three days and expect the reviewers to accept it!

A number of promising proposals weren’t quite clear on what they planned to actually measure, and their exclusion/inclusion criteria were not well-defined; the Grant Review Board advised that these need to be clear and justified to the reviewer, but also relevant for the experiment. In addition, if you are able to explain or provide evidence that the techniques you plan to use are already established in your lab, this will only strengthen your application.

If pilot or preliminary data are presented, it is essential that the data are convincing, strong and well-presented. Or on the other hand, if optimisation of a particular protocol or technique is required then state that! For Pilot project grant applications, the Board members expressed that it is important to indicate if the pilot work will lead to follow up studies or a Major project grant or Fellowship application (which ideally it should).

Generally speaking…

Does a badly written grant mean badly executed science? It was clear when an application was badly written or littered with errors that this did not give a good impression to the Board; what might seem like small errors such as incorrect citations did a lot more damage than they are worth! This should also go without saying, but if the application is for a charity such as Alzheimer’s Research UK, the proposal must have clear relevance to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias. It was also suggested by the Board that prior Alzheimer’s Research UK grant success from Network funding added weight to an application – so I would suggest applying to your local Network funding calls!

Most importantly, I found it deeply encouraging that the Board members viewed ECR grant applications so positively. All ECR grant applications were met with such encouraging, inspiring comments and feedback.  In addition, ECR grant applications reflected very well on their supporting senior PI!

In short…

You (and I…) need to get across to the Grant Review Board the importance of your work, question and area. Your proposal must be convincing that your work is novel, your case is strong, and your area of investigation is under researched (and underfunded!). If it has clinical relevance, make sure this is clearly stated! Your proposal must convince the Board that this work has not been done before, or this question has not been suitably answered.

Observing a grant board is something I would strongly recommend any Post doc to do, I wrote PAGES of notes from my experience, and I hope this summary was helpful. It was clear that the ARUK Grant Review Board put so much time and effort into assessing and understanding each application; there was a great deal of respect and care taken over each application, which was very encouraging to see. I am certainly no expert at writing grants or project proposals, but I believe this experience helped me understand the art of grant writing that little bit more and I certainly will follow the Board members pointers when I next attempt to write a grant application!


Author

Dr Josie Fullerton is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow. Having previously worked in addiction, spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury, Josie is now researching preclinical and clinical stroke. Draw by how little we still really know about the brain and its pathologies, especially in conditions such as dementia.

You can follow Josie on Twitter       

Josie Fullerton

Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Glasgow.

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