BLOG by Sophie Lutter

14 May 2015

Once you get past the dreams of holidays in the sun, fast cars and owning more than just a shoebox flat in London, it’s really not that easy to spend over two million pounds – the amount we will soon be putting into exciting new research. There's a long and detailed process between getting applications for funding and handing over cash. And that’s just as it should be when it’s charity money we’re talking about.

Microscope in laboratory

First, applications for research funding have to be gathered in and ‘triaged’. That means reading, and weeding out, any applications that obviously don’t fit within our research strategy. Just because it’s important doesn’t mean we can fund conservation projects in the Amazon after all.

Who reviews funding applications? Stage one: peer review

Once any obviously inappropriate applications are flushed out, we have to find at least three different peer reviewers for each application. These are experts from all over the world who agree to volunteer their time to read through a full research application (which can reach around 90 pages long). They also agree to give an assessment about whether the proposed research is scientifically sound, and whether the team applying for the money have enough expertise and experience to pull it off.

And these can’t just be any experts. They need to be experts with no conflicts of interest with the applicant, so that we can be sure that the reviews are honest and unbiased.

The experts can’t be married to the applicant, for example. Or work with them, or have worked with them in the past, or have supervised their PhD back in the day, or work at the same university, or have worked at the same university until recently – the list goes on. Can you imagine the pool of potential experts shrinking before your eyes?

And then of course, on top of all that, they need to agree to review the application. Not an easy ask. So it’s not surprising that to award our recent grants, we had to contact 751 peer reviewers to get 240 responses.

Who reviews funding applications? Stage two: Research Advisory Committee

Once the applications are out for expert review, it’s time to get the Research Advisory Committee together. You’ve just heard how hard it is to find one non-conflicted expert to read and comment on a single application. Now imagine trying to find 12 experts, who each need to read at least three applications and then get together to talk about them. Again, no mean feat.

Yet these two processes – peer review and the advisory committee meeting – are absolutely the most important aspect of funding research. These are the people who will help us sort the wheat from the chaff and make sure that we are funding only the best research, by the best people, in the best place. They’re making sure we fund research that will be of the most benefit to men in the shortest time possible.

Of course more often than not, it’s more like trying to separate the wheat from the wheat – we have too many good applications and just not enough money to fund them all. That’s why Men United is so important. The great things guys do together to beat prostate cancer can help us and our Research Advisory Committee do great things together to beat prostate cancer.

What happens when the committee gets together?

Our expert panel includes prostate cancer biologists, medicinal chemists, geneticists, immunologists, and practising oncologists (experts in treating cancer) to make sure that every applicant’s research area is well represented. And the discussions can be intense.

There is absolutely no question of professional loyalty meaning that the panel (or the reviewers for that matter) hold back! If there’s a hole in the application, a flaw in the logic or a question that needs to be answered, the committee will find it. That doesn’t always mean that the application isn’t really good, and shouldn’t be funded. It just means that there might be extra reassurances we should seek, or questions we should ask, before the committee will agree to recommend the application for funding.

Being this thorough is their job. And it means we can be confident that the research we end up funding is really likely to make a difference to men with prostate cancer within a few years.

The best thing about these meetings is that the panel isn’t just quick to find the flaws in an application. They’re also quick to point out the exciting projects, the brilliant ideas, the things that make them excited to be scientists – and make us excited about the possibilities for men with prostate cancer.  

Getting the inside track

The committee is also a really good source of insider information: What’s the next big breakthrough? What’s making waves at all the cancer conferences? What are the hot topics we should be focussing on for the future? This is the kind of scientific intelligence gathering we need to keep us at the top of our game and keep us funding major developments in prostate cancer research.

And as for what comes out of these projects? We’ll keep you posted here.

Read this next:

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23 Apr 2015

Prostate Cancer UK and Movember funded researchers have grabbed attention from scientists and the media both here and in the US after presenting their results at a high profile American cancer conference.

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