Charities and peer review

I am often asked how medical research charities ensure that the funds they raise are awarded to the best science and the best scientists.

It is a condition of AMRC membership that charities must be able to demonstrate a clear process for the independent external peer review and funding of research grants as well as a research strategy outlining their objectives.   The principles and guidelines on peer review set down by AMRC can be found on our website.

But, more often than not, those charities who have research pages on their website will not just reference AMRC but also provide brief but clear descriptions of what their peer review process entails.  Often, and understandably, it is written with the researcher who is thinking of applying, in mind.  You might want to look at these random examples from Deafness Research UK, Arthritis Research UK, MND Association (see the research governance [pdf), or The Prostate Cancer Charity which embeds its description in a rather good FAQ about research generally.  But you’ll find similar descriptions elsewhere I assure you.

AMRC is a membership organisation, a coalition of the willing, and not a regulator in the sense that we all use that term to describe OFWAT or the Charity Commission.  Nonetheless from the late nineties onwards member charities agreed that we should audit their peer review processes on a five-yearly basis.  The last one was done in 2005/6 and the summary report can be found here.    Our next audit takes place at the end of this year and we will report publicly on the state of peer review in the sector some time in 2011.

What you’ll also notice from the above report is the amount of activity that charity peer review creates in the wider community.  Not least in terms of the number of applications processed, and the number of scientists asked to give up their time to sit on scientific panels or to be external reviewers.  So, an ongoing issue for charities is ensuring a robust and appropriate level of independent external peer review for their funding commensurate with the value and type of award being considered.

People often underestimate the commitment required from a charity to put in place and maintain a peer review system.   And much of our time at AMRC is spent guiding and supporting members through the challenges – from how best to advertise a call for grant proposals to how to manage conflicts of interest or involve patients.

For the sector as a whole we play an important role in helping it to strength and improve practices.  For smaller charities we can be an extension of their back office function.  For larger charities we can bring new ideas to their attention.  A case of David and Goliath leaning on and learning from one another .

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