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Why we have a Scientific Advisory Committee. Why they’re important. And why you should care…


Dr Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett

Head of Research

Date Published: March 31, 2020

Author: James Matejka

If you’ve ever read an Epilepsy Research UK annual report or browsed our website, you will have noticed a number of words and phrases that we repeat over and over again: ‘independent’, ‘rigorous’, ‘scrutiny’, ‘peer review’, ‘multi-stage process’, ‘AMRC standards’ and so on.

Of course, we know what we mean, but we thought it might be worth explaining why these over used verbs are the guiding principles of our funding programmes and why, as a supporter, they should be something you look for in research investment…

But first things first… who are the SAC?

The Epilepsy Research UK Scientific Advisory Committee (or SAC to you and me) is a panel of some of the country’s leading neurologists, neuroscientists and epilepsy researchers. As individuals, they have decades of experience and work at the highest levels of clinical or scientific research. From a governance perspective, the panel are an independent committee providing recommendations to the Board of Trustees. The SAC is committed to supporting the charity’s overall mission and vision while maintaining enough distance to ensure that recommendations for funding are independent of the Board Trustees and the Charity’s Executive team.

And why exactly are they so important?

Well, each year Epilepsy Research UK invites researchers from clinical and academic institutions across the UK to submit their research ideas. The research will focus on a specific aspect of epilepsy, for example:

  • developing more accurate diagnosis
  • improving seizure control
  • exploring new treatments

It is the responsibility of the SAC to triage these ideas and concepts, select the most promising, and invite the primary investigator to submit a second stage, more in-depth proposal. This in-depth proposal outlines exactly how  the researcher intends to explore this area of epilepsy; what equipment or techniques will be used, what expertise it will involve, how their institution will support their research, and how this research will benefit people with epilepsy.

As members of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) – we are required to adhere to a set of strict guidelines, ensuring that the assessment of research applications by the SAC is independent and thoroughly examined to the required standards. When we talk about appropriate scrutiny and rigorous process, this is what we mean. If you haven’t heard of the AMRC, it is worth checking their website to understand a little more about the work they do to ensure that medical research charities achieve the greatest impact for our beneficiaries. Membership of the AMRC is a hallmark of quality research.

How does the SAC reach a decision about what to fund?

The whole assessment process usually takes around 7 months and during this time all applications are reviewed not only by the SAC, but by international epilepsy experts from across the globe – a process known as ‘peer review’. The feedback is then collated from the expert analysis, and the SAC then come together to discuss each application. This is where the SAC’s decades of experience and knowledge are put to the test with each member debating the applicants expertise, the methodologies, the capability of the research group, the backing of the host institution… and challenging every data source. After a full day of exhaustive discussion, the final scoring for each application is agreed. The SAC’s highest scored applications are then recommended to the ERUK Board of Trustees for funding.

Together, these steps form an independent multi-stage process that ensures only the highest quality research, showing potential to impact the lives of people with epilepsy, is awarded funding.

But why should you care?!

As a supporter investing in research, it is essential to know that every penny of your gift is going to research that has been assessed for funding by a world class, uniquely qualified panel of scientific and clinical experts. The only way to achieve this is through a transparent and entirely independent Scientific Advisory Committee.

– Dr Caoimhe Twohig-Bennett