How do we fund research?

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By Dr Emma O'Brien | Thursday 12 February 2015

As the UK’s leading dementia research charity, we receive requests for funding from researchers all over the country; last year we committed £7.6 million to pioneering dementia research. Project proposals range from unravelling the genetics of frontotemporal dementia in flies to taking a closer look at the human brain in Alzheimer’s with sophisticated scanners. As all our research is supported by generous donations and amazing fundraising challenges, we want to make sure that the money is spent in the best way possible – to find out how to prevent, diagnose and cure dementia. But how do we decide what projects to fund?

The Grant Review Board

The Grant Review Board (GRB) is a group of 19 expert dementia researchers. They hail from all over the country, each with different specialties. The GRB, led by Prof Stuart Pickering-Brown from the University of Manchester, are tasked with recommending which projects we fund.

There are several steps to this process, and the first is triage. At this stage the applications are split between the GRB members. The Research team at Alzheimer’s Research UK makes sure that the specialties of different GRB members are taken into account; a brain imaging expert won’t be asked to review a grant on Alzheimer’s genetics. Each proposal is simply given a yes/no score. While this may seem quite brutal, the yes/no decision takes into account whether the project fits within our remit to fund biomedical research into causes, prevention, diagnosis and treatment of dementia.

Worldwide input

Once the applications have been shortlisted, they are sent to three ‘external reviewers’ who can be based anywhere in the world. These reviewers are experts in the particular area of research the proposed project will focus on, and will carefully read the application and comment on it. They might think that a project is really important and plugs a hole in our knowledge of dementia. Or they may know from experience that a project is too complex to be completed in the proposed time frame. These comments are sent back to the GRB panel, for them to take into account when they meet to discuss the projects.

The GRB meeting

The GRB meet twice a year to discuss shortlisted grant applications. Each application has two designated panel members (DPM), who are in charge of presenting the application to the rest of the panel. They’ll share their thoughts on the application, as well as those of the external reviewers. And then the floor is open for discussion. The GRB must weigh up whether they think the project is strong enough to contribute and build-on our knowledge of dementia. We think it’s very important that we fund only the best scientific ideas, ones that can really give hope to those living with dementia.

Patient Involvement

It isn’t just the thoughts of the researchers that are taken into account. New for this year, all grant applications that involve people, whether that be for taking part in a brain imaging study, or completing memory and thinking tests, will now be looked at by three Lay Review Volunteers. These reviewers are people who have experience of dementia; someone who has dementia themselves, or a carer or former carer. Lay Reviewers advise the GRB whether they think a study involving people is feasible, from the perspective of the volunteer. For example, is it practical to ask someone with severe Alzheimer’s to lie in a brain scanner for over an hour, once a month? Their comments will be fed back to the researchers who made the application, to help them refine their experimental methods.

Fred Walker, Alzheimer’s Research UK Champion, was our first Lay Reviewer to sit on the GRB. He shares his views on the day here:

“At the onset I was aware that my knowledge of neurology per se was very limited, but I quickly came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter because this was an exercise in transparency and I was there to observe the modus operandi of the Grant Review Board. When the meeting finished my most overriding feeling was one of reassurance. I know I speak for all fundraisers, whether they are Champions, volunteers or corporate partners, when I say there is always a question mark over what happens to the money we work so hard to raise for charities. I can assure you that after seeing every single application for funds being reduced to its smallest detail that our money is safe and is used with the utmost economy to derive maximum benefit from every penny. Not only was I reassured, but I was impressed by the commitment made by each Board member to husband our money. It was a long and tiring day for me as an observer so I have the greatest respect for the hard work and dedication displayed by all members of our Grants Review Board. I have a renewed confidence in the work of Alzheimer’s Research UK and will continue to raise funds and awareness of Alzheimer’s disease.”

This entire process ensures that we fund only the best research projects, projects that will help us understand more about dementia and ultimately make a difference to the lives of the 830,000 people living in this country with the condition. But we can only do this with your help; we desperately need more funds to ensure that vital dementia research continues. Please donate today to help make breakthroughs possible.


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About the author

Dr Emma O'Brien

Team: Science news