How do we decide what research to fund? How do we ensure that we are making the most of supporter money? It’s perhaps not surprising that this process can be quite complex but Dr Jessica Eddy, Research Officer in the Breakthrough Research funding team, is on hand to explain this process from start to finish.

Monday 12 January 2015      Research blog
Investing in the best - how we decide what to fund

On this blog we’ve heard a lot about the amazing discoveries that Breakthrough-funded scientists are making, but some of you have been asking how we decide which researchers deserve the money raised by our supporters.

This may seem like an obvious question; surely it’s the best scientists? However, to determine who the best scientists are and what the most promising research to fund is, a rigorous peer review process must be undertaken – and, given we’re talking about cutting-edge breast cancer research, it’s perhaps not surprising that this process can be quite complex. Dr Jessica Eddy, Research Officer in the Breakthrough Research funding team, explains this process from start to finish.

Breakthrough-funded research: long-term, expert programmes

All of our research funding goes towards long-term programmes at dedicated institutes across the UK. These include the world-famous Breakthrough Toby Robins Breast Cancer Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, Research Units in King’s College London and Manchester as well as Research Programmes at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Dundee.

We also fund the Breakthrough Generations Study, the world’s largest and most comprehensive scientific study into the causes of breast cancer, following more than 114,000 women across the UK.

Each year we invest around  £9m in research. To work out how best to spend it, we use a peer review process to assess both new and ongoing programmes in order to select the proposals which represent the best potential outcome for people with breast cancer.

What is peer review?

Peer review can be summed up as the ‘evaluation of scientific, academic, or professional work by others working in the same field.‘  Essentially, this means that we get other expert scientists from around the world to read applications from our scientists and assess the worth of the research.  This independent process ensures that research standards remain high and helps us make sure the money our supporters give us goes to the best possible research.

The peer review process is not a new idea; it can be traced back as far as the 17th century when the Royal Society set up the first peer review process for scientific research. In the 1900s peer review became commonplace as a means for assessing the accuracy and validity of new scientific discoveries, as well as a method for deciding which research to fund.

The next step: the Quinquennial Review

Once we’ve made the decision to invest in a researcher, we need to make sure their work is delivering results. As each of Breakthrough’s research grants is awarded in five year blocks, each programme has to undergo a Quinquennial Review (QR) towards the end of its funding period. This is a thorough peer review process conducted every five years to assess the scientific quality of the research we fund and whether the programme is worth investing in again.

During a QR, each grant holder writes a summary of their previous research and a proposal outlining their research plans for the next five years. This is then sent out to other eminent scientists (peer reviewers) with expertise in relevant areas who provide comments and scores which are sent to Breakthrough’s Scientific Advisory Group (SAG).

The SAG is made up of a panel of independent scientific and clinical breast cancer experts who conduct the QR.  They take into account their own views on the proposal as well as the comments supplied by the peer reviewers to reach a fair opinion on the research. In addition to this, the grant holder also gives a presentation to the SAG which is followed by a Q&A session. This QR format is common practice among funders of medical research in the UK and is a requirement of being a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC).

The final say: Breakthrough’s Science Committee and Board of Trustees

Once the QR has been conducted and both the SAG and the external peer review comments and scores have been received, these are presented to Breakthrough’s Science Committee.

The Science Committee is comprised of mainly scientific and clinical trustees who give advice and make recommendations to the Board of Trustees about grant-funding decisions.   Ultimately, it’s the Trustees who make the final decision whether to invest or not.

The Science Committee takes into account both the external peer review comments and the final scores of the SAG to come to a funding recommendation that is later presented to the Board of Trustees. As the Research Officer who takes the minutes at these meetings, I can testify that the discussions are often lively and enthusiastic with all trustees passionate about funding the best breast cancer research out there.

The peer review process concludes with the Board of Trustees who discuss the Science Committee’s recommendations and make a final decision on funding.

A world without peer review?

So what would happen without peer review? In my opinion, the foundation of science would crumble, or at the very least scientific research would not really be scientific at all but riddled with personal opinions and invalid conclusions. Not dissimilar to the Daily Mail’s ever-changing ideas on what causes cancer, perhaps….

Peer review helps us make objective decisions on which research to fund, giving us the information we need to decide which proposals show the most promise and ultimately leading to better treatments for those living with breast cancer.

We know our supporters go above and beyond every day to make sure our work can continue – and we have a duty to them to spend the money they raise on the very best research out there. It’s through this process that we make sure their hard work pays off.

Find out more about our research and the scientists we fund

Dr Jessica Eddy is Breakthrough’s Research Officer