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Q&A: What it takes to be on an MRC board

Moira Whyte

Moira Whyte (Image: Academy of Medical Sciences)

It’s that time of year when we open up applications for new members of our boards and panels. Here Professor Moira Whyte, Head of Respiratory Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, talks to Katherine Nightingale about her experience being a member of an MRC board ― and the benefits it can have to researchers.

What has your involvement with MRC boards been?

I’ve been a member of Population and Systems Medicine Board (PSMB) for four years and I was Deputy Chair of the panel making decisions about the MRC-NIHR Efficacy and Mechanisms Evaluation Programme for five. Both of those commitments ended this year. As well as this, I’ve been involved in other activities such as evaluating stratified medicine funding calls.

How has being a board member affected your day-to-day work?

The obvious commitment is preparing for and attending the board meetings, which are held three times a year for PSMB. There is also a preliminary stage to each meeting where you read grant applications and comment on them online as part of the triage system. Some of these will be preliminary applications for large grants that the board helps shape, and others will be more standard grant applications.

The number of applications you read can vary, but it takes about a day to do the preliminary reading and then probably another day to prepare for the board meeting.

Did you find being on a board useful for your own research?

Being on a board really broadens your thinking.

The process is helpful scientifically because you look at so many grant applications from other research areas. That means you see other people taking very different approaches to answer questions that are comparable with those you might face in your own field.

Then at a practical level you see the many different ways that people write grant applications and you learn to recognise what’s a good approach and what doesn’t work so well. It’s also useful from a networking point of view ― one valuable research collaboration that I have came from interactions with another board member.

How did you find the decision-making process?

The variety of research funded by PSMB is very wide, including mechanistic research in most organ systems, and population and environmental health. Board members are a mixture of clinicians and basic researchers, and also members from industry who make important contributions.

What fascinated me was how we could have wide-ranging discussions about the relative merits of a grant, with everyone given the opportunity to state their arguments for or against an application, but then reach agreement. It is a competitive process, but at the end when the scores go up, you do find that they reflect the consensus that the board reached.

The board is very careful to be mindful of certain situations, such as applications from people early in their career.

What was your favourite part of the task?

One of the good things about the board is that members are informed and often  involved in strategic discussions by various parts of the MRC. We are informed about broader issues or asked to comment or get involved in working groups.

Another satisfying thing is that for larger grants, the board gets involved at an early stage and can feed back suggested changes and improvements to the applicants. You can later see how the board has helped to shape a better project that is successful in being funded.

Any words of wisdom for people thinking of applying?

Being a board member is well worth doing for the interest and learning experience ― it’s an important part of your development as a researcher. Although on the day the list of grant applications arrives you sometimes wonder how you’re going to fit in reading them, you do find the time.

Board meetings aren’t intimidating, they are good natured and inclusive. In my experience, board members are listened to ― board chairs are respectful of people’s opinions. Disagreements happen but they’re not personal ― they’re about weighing the relative merits of a grant in a competitive situation.

What kind of people does the MRC need for boards?

People with experience of leading their own research programme and who have a genuine interest in wider scientific questions and in gaining exposure to science strategy. They also need people from a broad range of scientific fields and experience, who are willing to share what they have learned.

 Katherine Nightingale

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