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How we choose the best research to fund

Prof Mike Cousin

Professor Mike Cousin

Chair of Scientific Advisory Committee

- Chair of Neuronal Cell Biology
- University of Edinburgh

Date Published: May 12, 2021

Author: James Matejka

Professor Mike Cousin is Chair of the Epilepsy Research UK Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) and Chair of Neuronal Cell Biology at the University of Edinburgh. In this Research Blog, Professor Cousin explains how the SAC decide which research projects to fund and why supporters can be sure they are investing in only the best research.

Imagine you had hard-earned cash to invest in either a new car, phone or clothes – how do you go about making the best choice? Your choice could be driven by things like gut instinct, peer pressure or fashion, however, you might also want to ask for some expert advice to make sure that you’re not wasting your money. In its simplest form, this is exactly the role the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) performs for Epilepsy Research UK.

Importantly, the SAC is independent of the charity itself, meaning they can give unbiased and impartial input to the Board of Trustees on the research and researchers to fund. This distance is critical since, just like the analogy above, scientific research can suffer from fads, trends and pressure from external influences including social media, politics and celebrity endorsements.

But how do you know you can trust the SAC’s recommendation? To make certain your money is being well spent and the SAC are fulfilling their role effectively, Epilepsy Research UK are members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC). Members work by the strictest criteria – peer review, open calls, and rigorous assessment – ensuring that the assessment of research applications by the SAC is independent and thoroughly examined to the required standards. Membership of the AMRC is the hallmark of quality research – it means Epilepsy Research UK invests in only the best research.

What does the SAC do?

In a typical year Epilepsy Research UK has one cycle of research funding, which doesn’t sound a lot, however, it takes almost a full year from start to finish. Here’s how it works….

Summer – The SAC meets to discuss how to assess the upcoming grant cycle. This means debriefing on how things went last year and the potential for improvements for the upcoming year. As an example, this year we reappraised what we should be looking for in our applications, and altered our internal grant scoring system accordingly.

Autumn/Winter – The busiest meeting! Not just on the day, but in the month leading up to it, where the SAC can have around 70 (!) preliminary applications to read and score. These scores are then sent to our Head of Research, Caoimhe, who places them in rank order. The SAC discusses borderline cases and decides how many applicants to invite to prepare full applications.

An important part of this meeting is identifying external experts to peer review this work. This is vital since independent expert opinion is critical for the SAC to make well-informed decisions. External reviewers are usually from outside of the UK since the UK epilepsy field is very well connected, making it difficult to find someone who can be impartial. Importantly, any SAC member who has a conflict of interest (or could be perceived to have one) is excluded from scoring specific grants.

Spring – Decision day! Before the meeting, the SAC score all the full applications, taking into account the external peer reviews and applicant responses to these comments. We then fully discuss each grant, with a SAC member “championing” each one. This ensures no detail has been missed, in terms of either excellence or flaws. We then produce our final ranking and recommend grants for funding to the Epilepsy Research UK Board of Trustees.

This format is identical for research grants (Endeavour Project Grants and Explore Pilot Studies) and fellowships (Emerging Leader Fellowship), however, for the latter, we also interview all shortlisted candidates. Emerging Leader Fellowships are the biggest individual investment that Epilepsy Research UK makes, therefore the SAC has this additional safeguard to ensure we select the best people for these prestigious awards.

How did this year go?

Let’s say it was very different to normal! I took over as SAC Chair just before the first lockdown, meaning all meetings and interviews were held over Zoom. Our grant round was also changed considerably, with funding priorities altered to focus on:
1) Immediate solutions for people with epilepsy during the pandemic i.e., the Innovations in Healthcare Awards.
2) Supporting early career researchers through the Emerging Leader Fellowship Award, Epilepsy Research UK & Young Epilepsy Fellowship and the Doctoral Training Centre Grants.

Since the Innovations in Healthcare Awards and Doctoral Training Centres were new schemes, the SAC had to generate new scoring criteria and co-opt specialist input to ensure we had appropriate expertise. We announced the Innovations in Healthcare awardees at the end of last year, and you can find out more about these projects here. The Doctoral Training Centre and Fellowship awardees will be announced during National Epilepsy Week (24th – 30th May), so stay tuned for more information soon!

Huge thanks

The SAC only functions through the dedication of its members and the support of the charity’s research team (huge thanks to Caoimhe!). The collection of neurologists, neuroscientists and epilepsy researchers that comprise the SAC do this task voluntarily, in addition to their busy clinical and academic schedules. Their dedication ensures Epilepsy Research UK investment in both research grants and people is targeted to the highest quality science, to deliver maximum impact for people living with epilepsy.

Therefore just like the scenario at the start of this blog, as a supporter investing in research, you can have confidence that every penny of your donation will be invested in the very best projects and people, with the overarching goal to improve the lives of people with epilepsy.

-Professor Mike Cousin