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Above board: musings on being an MRC board member

Kim Graham

Kim Graham (Image copyright: Kim Graham)

What’s it like to hold the purse strings for science funding? Professor Kim Graham, a member of the MRC Neuroscience and Mental Health Board (NMHB) and researcher at Cardiff University, gives us an insight into what being an MRC board member involves, from the seemingly endless reviewing of grants to the biscuit-laden meetings.

After four years, I’ll be finishing my stint on the NMHB board in March 2014. I’m looking forward to vacating the hot seat for someone else, but also sad to be saying goodbye to the wonderful colleagues that have made the past few years so enjoyable.

Reflecting on these experiences I realised how little information is available about this mysterious process to which UK researchers submit their scientific works of art. 

Putting in the time

There are three board meetings a year, corresponding to the three rounds of funding each board gives per year. A few months before a meeting, board members are required to score and triage grants; this involves inputting a brief review of the grant into the Je-S online application system, and noting an opinion on whether it should go through to the board. In the last round I assessed/triaged 12 grants and one programme grant outline (from a total of more than 100 submitted proposals), which took about two days. Some grants, sitting at the in/out boundary, require further reading around the subject matter, and it can be tough deciding which way to jump.

When a board member is asked to attend the triage meeting, they have to look at a wider set of grants and comment on those receiving differing opinions from board members. A couple of months later, up on the 13th floor of the MRC’s London Head Office (where scientific focus is fuelled by nice views, constant coffee and biscuits), board members provide more detailed assessment of the successfully triaged grants and score these from 0 to 10. Funding is then allocated to those applications with scores above a certain threshold.

As well as board meetings, board members also sit on scientific advisory boards and undertake MRC centre and unit reviews. This involves trips to other UK institutions, which I always found interesting, both scientifically and politically. If you are a lead member on one of these panels, you’ll be expected to provide a concise (or not so concise) report to the board covering the diverse views these visits inevitably engender. Finally, board members act as external ambassadors for the MRC and help develop MRC strategic priorities in neuroscience and mental health more broadly.

Being on an MRC board can be a lot of work. Thankfully, the workload tended to wax and wane in line with board meetings, and with forward planning the commitment felt reasonable (and sometimes even a welcome distraction). There were occasional clashes between my university and MRC work, and sometimes I felt like I was on a never-ending MRC reviewing treadmill. I remember sitting at one evening MRC meeting, having just finished reading and evaluating a 200-page document, when, bleep, bleep, there was an MRC email requiring a number of grant reviews for the next board meeting. Feeling a little sick, I glanced across the table and noticed a fellow board member reading the same email; a wry, shared smile acknowledged that being a member of the MRC family isn’t always a bed of roses.

Developing skills

These challenges, however, meant I developed new methods to deal with the madness. I became a dab hand at quickly, but efficiently, evaluating and appraising grants, and even better at juggling MRC-university-family commitments. These new skills will benefit me enormously in the future. It also helped that I found being on the board a lot of fun, and enjoyed learning about new scientific ideas and approaches. This new knowledge has brought a broader perspective to my own research, and I try to share it with others in the hope it enhances opportunities for MRC funding across the UK.

I very quickly gained an appreciation of the exceptional breadth and high quality of UK neuroscience and mental health research. It was always a pleasure to discover grant applications describing innovative research designed by inspirational scientists. Lots of grants addressed tractable and important experimental questions, clinical or more fundamental, though only a sub-set of these were as well written and clear as they could have been. Some applications included pilot data, which, along with a thoughtful and clearly laid out response to reviewers, helped me address concerns around feasibility and innovation.

Missing the cut

Like the occasional reviewer, I’m not sure I always got it right. Robust debate would often ensue, and my thoughts about a grant were sometimes altered by the opinions expressed by other NMHB Board members. These times were a reminder of the importance of having a broad and varied scientific skill-set around the table. It’s fair to say, I learnt a lot from the insightful and humorous contributions made by my board colleagues.

Over repeated boards, I grew confident that the grants we funded reflected the best submitted, although the size of our pot sometimes meant that good grants, including some I really liked, missed the cut. It was hard not to feel sorry for the applicants; all of us know that putting together a proposal is hugely time-consuming.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though; one afternoon in London, I was part of a committee charged with making decisions about the MRC Centenary Early Career Awards. We awarded grants of £100,000 to early-career researchers to help accelerate a step-change in their scientific careers. During these financially austere times, it was rare for me to experience the sheer delight that comes from such financial benevolence. I left with a skip in my step, happy to have reinvested MRC money, in this case revenue from therapeutic antibody production, into the future of UK research.

I also left hopeful that such awards, designed to promote academic independence, might lead these young researchers, eventually, to a hot seat on an MRC board.

Kim Graham

Information about all MRC boards, including NMHB and its funding remit, is available on the MRC website.

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