The Research Review Process

By Kathryn Dickinson

In early June 2016, I was fortunate to attend a Canadian Cancer Society grant application review meeting in Toronto, as a community representative. The purpose of these meetings is to rate the grant applications under review, and to generate constructive feedback for their authors. This meeting was to assess highly innovative proposals in the area of Gene Regulation and Cell Biology – one of 6 competitions for innovation in different areas of cancer research. The panel for this meeting was comprised of 16 scientists and 2 community representatives from different regions of Canada, and Canadian Cancer Society staff. The scientists as well as the community representatives volunteered their time. Primary and secondary reviewers had been chosen for each application, and they had assessed the research proposals assigned to them before the meeting. The community representative’s role was to give the view of the community, to observe the integrity of the process and to comment on the quality of the public sections of the applications. It is a lot of work, but was enlightening and felt extremely worthwhile. The proposals covered a wide range of approaches, with relevance to various types of cancer, and in many cases made use of the latest developments in technology.

For each application, once the main reviewers had given their comments and initial ratings for innovation and scientific merit, and after the community representative assigned to the application had spoken, discussion was opened up to the whole panel. The goal was not necessarily to achieve consensus, but to fully air all aspects of an application (related research, methodology, aims, team, budget etc.), identifying both strengths and weaknesses. There were several opportunities for the reviewers to adjust their ratings, both during and at the end of the proceedings. Two panel members had been assigned the role of Scientific Officer, and they recorded discussion highlights to provide feedback to the application’s researchers. The meeting was chaired by a senior scientist, who kept discussions on track, and drew them to conclusion. I felt that the community representatives’ contributions were welcomed and our role appreciated.  The integrity of the process was maintained, for example, by ensuring panel members were excluded from reviewing applications when they had conflicts of interest. The process is well-defined and rigorous, but as this was my second time on a panel, I was able to see that it continues to evolve. For example, an adjustment had been made since last time to make the process more efficient, while still respecting the time and effort of the researchers who had submitted applications.

Both times I have attended review meetings, I have been impressed by the dedication of the panel members, and the positive atmosphere of the meetings. Discussion is good-natured and objective, whether consensus is reached or not. I was also impressed by how well everything is organized, and how much support is available from the Canadian Cancer Society.

Participating in this process as a community representative was a privilege. I am truly grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society, and everyone else involved, for this opportunity. It is due to the researchers who submit applications, those who serve on the review panels, and the donors who provide funding for cancer research, that the Canadian Cancer Society is able to pursue its mission.