After receiving a grant proposal, the Research Department assigns it to be reviewed by 2-3 experts, who are often members of one of MDA’s advisory committees (see sidebar). Reviewers use a fine-toothed comb and a skeptical eye, on constant watch for potential flaws in the proposal. They also take note of innovation, imagination, ingenuity. They scrutinize the science and the scientist. They delve through the scientific literature to fully update their own knowledge of the field and to determine whether the grant applicant has left any scientific stones unturned. Above all, MDA reviewers look for outstanding science that will lead to therapies. To insure that their critiques will be completely independent, the two or three experts reviewing the same application are kept unaware of one other’s identity.
Each Spring and Fall, after all the proposal reviews have been submitted to MDA, the Medical and Scientific Advisory Committees (MAC and SAC) convene in separate meetings at MDA headquarters in Tucson, Arizona. Ad-hoc committee members who participated in reviews also attend the meetings. The expert panels, along with MDA Research Department staff, gather in a roundtable discussion to debate the merits and weaknesses of each research proposal. The two or three reviewers who critiqued the same proposal finally face one another and share their evaluations. The discussion can be lively and heated. Sometimes, committee members revise their reviews in light of the debate. When it appears a proposal may not score highly enough to be funded, the panel offers suggestions to be conveyed to the applicant to help it become more competitive upon resubmission.
MVP grants are discussed by the Translational Research Advisory Committee at monthly teleconferences, so as to provide more timely responses to drug development projects. This committee often offers advice as to how an applicant can improve a project, which can result in several weeks of discussion, and a final project which is much improved from the initial application.
Conflicts of Interest
The science community is small and close-knit. Neuromuscular disease researchers represent an even smaller group within that community. Reviewers inevitably have relationships, both collaborative and competitive, with grant applicants and even with other reviewers. To make sure these relationships don’t interfere with objective and ethical scientific reviews, MDA prohibits committee members from reviewing proposals with which they may have a conflict-of-interest. During Advisory Committee meetings, members with potential conflicts with a proposal (for example, when the committee member and grant applicant work at the same institution) are asked to leave the room while that proposal is under discussion. Information contained in grant proposals and discussed at Advisory Committee meetings is kept under strict confidence.