The future funding of medical research: considering efficiencies?

29th July 2015

This is part 4 of our posts looking beyond the MRFF to the future funding of medical research. Our previous posts considered developing a strategy that was impact-focused and beneficial to the researcher, the funders and the larger medical research-funding ecosystem. By having a defined strategy built around what success looks like in your piece(s) of the puzzle will help build a funding and review system on top that is more efficient.

One of our early posts identified some of the issues relating to how philanthropy can consider and support research efficiencies. Our three-part blog “Looking back through the microscope at medical research” explored in more detail some of the factors influencing translational research and a focus beyond publications.

Funders should also look for opportunities to provide efficiencies to researchers and develop mechanisms to create in-house efficiencies.

In 2011, Professor Graves published an article exploring the effectiveness and cost of peer review medical research. This paper identified a number of items relating to efficiencies and in particular the cost to researchers when applying for grants. All grant makers would rather see researchers spending their time performing research, rather than applying for money.

One solution that has been proposed is to establish a single universal application form. This however would also need some careful consideration.  The previous posts highlight that all research is not the same and hence the activities, desired outcomes and review criteria will differ.  Funders should also be asking questions that are pertinent to their decision-making processes and delivering success that may include aspects beyond the traditional scientific peer review process.

Some funders have included trained consumers (people with the condition or their carers) in their decision-making processes. The potential interest from future collaborators or partners that can take technologies along the translational pathway may also be a consideration. These considerations may rely on the capability and capacity of the research organisation beyond research. How capable and willing is the organisation to support non-research translational activities such as building and marketing a community education program or engaging with health authorities or industry?

Other considerations may also include project and risk management support and the application of the research in the policy or regulatory approval process.

Reproducibility of medical research is currently topical and there a numerous publications (example) reporting on the robustness of research published in quality journals. The NIH is also looking at this global issue.  Quality systems may provide greater robustness and an ability to use data more extensively.

Many research facilities do not have quality systems such as GMP, GLP or ISO systems in place. Without these systems the research can be limited in its contribution to translation. Quality systems are more relevant for some research activities than others but it is worth considering how important they are to the activities you are supporting. The teaching of quality systems to research students can also assist them in attaining future employment beyond academia.

To assist researchers, funders should also make it clear what they are NOT interested in supporting and identify where priorities may exist.   Conducting educational opportunities may also help applicants make informed decisions about applying and raise the quality of applications received. Including expressions of interest prior to inviting more detailed applications can also provide efficiencies for researchers and funders.

“Funders should consider the cost of asking questions where they don’t use the answers”

Funders may also wish to identify administrative efficiencies for their own organisations, including paper vs electronic submissions, review processes and working with other funders.

Considering potential efficiencies, benefits and risks associated with collaboration (including giving circles) mergers and acquisitions may be of value but can also require access to additional skill sets and due-diligence processes.

Harnessing complementary skill sets to better achieve a common purpose is a good starting point, but there are many other considerations that need to align. Collaborating is the easiest of these options but in each case normal commercial considerations need to be addressed including culture, branding, governance and leadership to name but a few.

Collaborations provide an easier platform for funders of research to find common ground and develop single application, review and reporting requirements and processes that work within each funder’s governance framework.

NFMRI starts with a term-sheet to assist with the development of relationships, risk management and helps to manage the formation of collaborations in an orderly process.

Don’t ignore the elephant in the room until the end or months of work could be wasted.  It is better to know early if a collaboration won’t work.

The term-sheet outlines why we wish to collaborate, what each party adds to the achievement of our common purpose and covers numerous items including grant management, funding conditions, fields of research, strategic area, promotion, reporting, governance, confidentiality, contacts, disputes, and termination. The term-sheet also allows us to progressively identify areas of agreement and areas that still need to be worked through.

Starting with a pilot program that builds relationships and reinforces the benefits of collaboration can also assist. The pilot program makes it easier to include continual improvement processes keeping your eye on the objective. Pilot programs can also help stop molehills turning into mountains.

Collaborations may also provide funding efficiencies for organisations that are good at fundraising who identify other foundations that are good at giving in complementary areas. They could also be for a disease or condition focused funders who wish to harness the capability and capacity of a preclinical or clinically focussed organisation or vice versa.

Collaboration of course may also escalate and confirm the potential for future mergers or acquisitions. see also…..  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3  

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