Peer review in scientific publications - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by The Association of Medical Research Charities (PR 90)

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) welcomes the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee's inquiry into peer review. We wish to draw the following points to the committee's attention.

ABOUT AMRC

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) is a membership organisation of the leading medical and health research charities in the UK. Working with our member charities and partners, we aim to support the sector's effectiveness and advance medical research by developing best practice, providing information and guidance, improving public dialogue about research and science, and influencing government.

Formally established in 1987, AMRC now has 126 member charities that contributed over £1 billion in 2009-10 to research in the UK, aimed at tackling diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as rarer conditions like cystic fibrosis and motor neurone disease. Medical research charities contribute approximately one third of all public expenditure on medical and health research in the UK. www.amrc.org.uk

Given our role in support of our member charities, our comments are necessarily focused on the use of peer review in research funding.

PEER REVIEW IN RESEARCH FUNDING

It is an AMRC membership requirement that charities use peer review to decide how to allocate their funding to health research. We believe that this commitment to the use of peer review by our members is an important contributor to the UK's leadership in health research.

AMRC provides substantial advice and assistance to its member charities to ensure that they implement peer review efficiently and effectively. As well as general guidance and good practice guidelines to charities (see: http://www.amrc.org.uk/training--research-practice_peer-review ) members can also access 1:1 support, formal training and workshops, and regular information to ensure that they can maintain up-to-date systems and approaches.

The UK charity sector's comprehensive commitment to the use of peer review—AMRC represents approximately 94% of all funding available from the sector—is unmatched anywhere else in the world. For our colleagues across science as well as donors, supporters and members of the public, it shows that medical charities are committed to funding research of the highest quality and to independence, impartiality and transparency in the distribution of research funds. Furthermore, we believe that use of peer review is important to ensuring public trust and confidence in our research activities and that their donations are being invested wisely.

The AMRC quality mark, including at its core this commitment to peer review, acts as a clear indicator to those seeking funding that the funder, however big or small, is a reliable source of funding with good, clear standards… The committee may wish to note that other funders and public agencies such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) regard AMRC membership as an important "quality mark" of standards in the sector. For instance, university eligibility for funds from the Government's Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF) is partly predicated on the relevant charity operating to AMRC membership standards.

We would hope that, in the course of its inquiry, the committee is in a position to note the considerable time, effort and resource that individual scientists and researchers provide freely and willingly to charities as part of their peer review systems, either as members of charity scientific committees or as reviewers of grant applications.

MAINTAINING THE HIGHEST STANDARDS OF PEER REVIEW

AMRC is an association of its members and not a regulator. Nonetheless, since 1996 we have conducted a regular audit of all our members to ensure that they are maintaining appropriate systems of peer review that meet our requirements in terms of: accountability; balance, independence, rotation, impartiality and independent/external assessment.

Since our last audit in 2005-06, we have reported the results of our audit to our external partners as well as publishing it on our website. The report is used as the basis for further activity—whether in terms of supporting individual charities to improve what they are doing, or in providing sector-wide guidance on key issues such as the use of triage, conflicts of interest, implementation of peer review by single institute charities, and patient and public involvement in peer review.

Our audit in 2005-06 showed that 88% of our charities were fully compliant with AMRC's principles of peer review. 12% faced challenges in respect of implementation and have received guidance and support as a result. We are currently in the process of auditing our member charities and would be pleased to provide the committee with a copy of our final report and recommendations in due course.

AMRC's audit not only provides charities and others with useful benchmarking data but it also provides us with important information on activity within the system. Our 2005-06 audit showed that of 8,400 applications considered by charities, 2,300 awards were made, and that 13,000 people (the vast majority scientists and researchers) served on charity peer review panels.

Given that there is already anecdotal evidence from AMRC that the number of applications to charities is increasing because of cuts in the science budget elsewhere, we expect the pressures on charities in terms of managing this workload to increase. For smaller charities in particular with less infrastructure at their disposal, this is a significant issue.

TRENDS IN PEER REVIEW

We would identify a number of cross-sector trends in the implementation of peer review by charities, notably:

—  An increasing number of our member charities now involve patients and the public in their peer review systems. While lay membership of scientific panels remains the predominant mechanism for this involvement, a number of charities are now adopting quite innovative ways of involving patients in their research funding decisions. The committee may wish to consult our 2009 report "Natural Ground—paths to patient and public involvement in research" for further examples and information: http://www.amrc.org.uk/training--research-practice_peer-review

—  The trend of the last few years has been for medical charities to increasingly collaborate in the funding and conduct of research. This trend has been amplified by economic pressures. Our 2010 project and report "Ways and Means" demonstrated that charities are now looking to share peer review processes and administrative support for peer review (http://www.amrc.org.uk/our-members_ways--means).

—  It is clear that from our latest tracking survey of the impact of the economic downturn on AMRC member charities that many charities have made, and will continue to seek, efficiencies in the implementation of peer review to reduce costs.

We hope that the above evidence is of interest to the committee and its members. AMRC would be pleased to present oral evidence with its member charities or supply further information as necessary.

Simon Denegri
Chief Executive
The Association of Medical Research Charities

March 2011


 
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Prepared 28 July 2011