The grant review process; perspective of an Early Career Researcher

The following article appeared on the Dementia Researcher website on Global MND Awareness Day 2024. 

As the first Early Career Researcher (ECR) member of MND Scotland’s grant reviewing Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP), I would wholeheartedly encourage other funding bodies to consider adding this role to their own grant review panels. It’s an incredibly rewarding position and I believe it’s of huge benefit to not just researchers in the early stages of their career, but the people we are trying to help.

My name is Dr Hannah Smith, I’m a postdoctoral motor neuron disease (MND) researcher at the University of Edinburgh and since January, I’ve been an observatory, non-voting member involved in MND Scotland’s grant reviews. Having an ECR on a Scientific Advisory Panel is extremely rare and MND Scotland is the first funding body for motor neuron disease research to offer such a role.

Many ECRs will recognise that transitioning from postdoctoral training to an independent research career as a Principal Investigator can be very challenging. As well as building your skills and developing your own unique research niche, you must apply for and gain funding, whether that’s a project grant or a fellowship. In my view, this is the most challenging skill, as the grant process can be opaque and, although many grant panels will give feedback, it’s not always clear how to improve your grant applications.

Having the chance to observe the grant review process directly during SAP meetings with the team at MND Scotland is therefore an incredible opportunity. Watching a discussion unfold demonstrates how to concisely communicate the impact of a prospective application, and the review process itself, in a way that’s almost impossible to learn otherwise.

Personally, research into MND is my passion. I completed my PhD in motor neuron development and synaptogenesis in 2019 and for my first postdoc moved to bone development and homeostasis. This taught me a great deal, but I realised that my true calling was in MND. I’m currently a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Tom Gillingwater, working on both ALS/MND and Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), initially funded by MND Scotland and now with support from Muscular Dystrophy UK.

My dream is to become a Principal Investigator of my own research group one day, and so I’m incredibly grateful to have been selected as the ECR member of the SAP. As well as directly improving my own grant-writing ability, I believe there are benefits for MND Scotland including an ECR member on their SAP. Although I don’t have the decades of experience that the full, voting members do, my day-to-day work is still at the lab bench. I’m always reading and troubleshooting new techniques or new approaches for generating and analyzing data. This gives me a distinct perspective on the technical aspects of an application.

Retention of ECRs in the field is an issue that’s not unique to MND research. With opportunities like these for ECRs who have developed a high level of experience in MND, MND Scotland is supporting the development of the next generation of research leaders.

MND Scotland also has two layperson members on the SAP, who review the lay summary section of grant applications. I feel their inputs are incredibly beneficial to the charity, to the wider community living with MND, and to myself. As a fundamental scientist, working in a lab with no patient-facing aspect, it’s important not to lose sight of my goal – research that will benefit people living with MND. This experience has reinforced to me just how vital it is to communicate in an engaging manner suitable for non-scientists, and to center the MND community when preparing applications. As a charity that supports people living with MND, MND Scotland is encouraging better scientific grant applications from current and future ECRs, while keeping the focus on how our research will benefit everyone impacted by the disease.

My experience so far as an ECR member of a Scientific Advisory Panel has been invaluable, both personally and for my future career development. I’d recommend any ECRs who encounter such a role to apply. I also hope that other funding bodies will follow MND Scotland’s lead and consider including ECRs in their own panels. It’s such a mutually beneficial role to be part of, and I feel both very lucky and very proud to be the first person in this role.

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