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Behind the scenes at an MRC Panel

We’ve looked at what it’s like to be a member of an MRC board, but what actually happens at a meeting? Katherine Nightingale sat in on part of a Panel session to find out.

Scoring equipment

The scoring equipment used by the Panel

In a large, bright room on the 13th floor of a London office block, 25 people are deciding how to spend up to £10 million. They are the MRC’s Developmental Pathway Funding Scheme (DPFS) Panel, charged with making decisions on applications for funding the development and testing of new therapies, medical devices and diagnostics.

The task at hand is to consider a set of 15 full applications seeking just over £15m for funding. Each application has already been the subject of considerable work from the Panel during the outline stage, which does what it says on the tin, with the Panel feeding back on a brief description of the project.

Full applications each get approximately 15 minutes of discussion time at the Panel meeting. This may not sound like much for research costing up to £1 million or more, but there’s a lot of assessment beforehand.

Each application has already been assessed by at least three external ― often international ― peer reviewers, who are experts in the relevant field. Then three or four Panel members do a more in-depth analysis before presenting their viewpoint of the clinical need, justification for the science and proposed methods, and the levels of expertise of the applicants, at the meeting.

After each set of deliberations, the Chair of the Panel, Herbie Newell, summarises the comments and gives other Panel members the opportunity to ask questions before inviting them to score the application between 1 and 10. They do this using equipment not dissimilar to that which a studio audience might use on a television talent show.

So far, so straightforward. The meeting is a polite affair, and members listen to each other ― most of the time ― in respectful silence, aside from the quiet tapping of laptop keys and the drone of the air conditioning.

But it’s not without its disagreements; disagreements based on experience. This might come in the form of discussion around dosing in a clinical trial, the impact that a proposed intervention might have on patients, or whether an applicant has proposed the right technique for the questions they want to answer.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect is the level of input that the Panel members have in terms of suggesting changes and honing the proposals. The wealth of their experience is used to evaluate not just whether the proposals should be funded or not, but the nitty gritty of how it might best be done.

This might sound like interfering, but it’s public money that’s at stake, and usually a lot of it. This careful tweaking and enhancement of ideas is crucial to improve the research and get the best out of the money we have to spend. And it’s worth remembering that much of this is based on the altruism of the Panel members giving their time and knowledge to the process.

Back to this particular meeting room, and the scores are in. There’s no drum roll, just more silence as the scores are collated in a not particularly glamorous Excel spreadsheet.

What we’re left with is a ranking of proposals in order of priority for funding, many with conditions or requests from the Panel which can affect the exact amount of money they cost. It’s up to the team in Head Office to work with the applicants and the Panel to finalise the awards and work out which applications eventually get funded out of the available pot.

We might think that scientific progress is made in the lab, in a succession of eureka moments, but in fact the meeting room might do more than we think.

Katherine Nightingale

Find out more about MRC Board and Panels.

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