Every year MS Australia has the responsibility of coordinating an annual grant distribution round and we are sometimes asked how we choose who to fund. Early in the calendar year applications are sought from scientists and clinicians wishing to conduct MS research. The available grants are advertised extensively via University Research Offices, academic journals, the MS Australia website and MS Australia’s extensive researcher database, to ensure all interested parties are aware of the opportunities.
Applicants must provide rigorous details about the hypothesis and aims of their research, the study design and the expected benefits for people with MS and include a detailed CV for the primary investigator. Most importantly, the application must show strong evidence of preliminary supporting data and feasibility studies to back up the hypothesis.
Once the applications have been received, a ‘peer review’ process commences. At least 2-3 referees, usually international referees, are approached to provide an independent review and rating for each project. These referees will be subject matter experts in the specific area of the application and will have published in that area. The referees are asked to rate factors such as relevance of the application to MS, strength of preliminary data, novelty of research, strength of the research plan, feasibility, strength of the research team and the ability to conduct the project through to completion and the potential benefits and outcomes for people with MS. Their reviews are de-identified and ratings removed, are then sent to back to the applicants so that they can respond to comments made.
To make the final decision on which grants should be funded, MS Australia’s Research Management Council (RMC) meets, usually in October each year. The RMC is a multi-disciplinary team of scientists and clinicians with significant experience in MS research. A separate sub-committee has been established to evaluate all Social and Applied applications. Naturally any conflicts of interest are stated with any RMC member who is associated with a specific application exiting the discussions and abstaining from a vote for that application. The Council provide their time and expertise in a pro bono capacity and are united in their desire to see high quality MS research funded.
A ‘lead discussant’ for each application is appointed within the RMC. This member will summarise the application, the independent referee’s opinions and the applicant rebuttal providing guidance on the numerical ranking that they will apply to the application. The application is then debated in depth by the RMC. As a result of this debate, the ‘lead discussant’ may change their ranking and if so, they will communicate this to the RMC. If a member of the RMC decides to rank the application 2 points outside of the Lead, then they are required to explain their reasoning. Each member of the RMC will then submit a numerical ranking anonymously. The votes are tallied and the Chairman then reviews those that are deemed acceptable and recommends a list and a final budget to the MS Australia Board, for approval.
The entire process is conducted with total integrity and is modelled on the most stringent grant review systems worldwide, and also aligns with the government’s National Health and Medical Research Council review process.