Why Your Research Project Needs a Scientific Advisory Board

Why Your Research Project Needs a Scientific Advisory Board

A version of this article first appeared in Funding Insight on 8th November 2018 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

A scientific advisory board may feel like an unnecessary luxury, but it can be crucial for the success of any large, complex project, says Maria Maunula of the University of Turku in Finland.

Maria’s top tips

  • A scientific advisory board can be useful throughout the lifetime of a project, from proposal development to final report.
  • The cost of an advisory board is small compared with the benefits it can bring to a project.
  • Make sure your advisory board includes both friends and critics, and that it represents all fields in an interdisciplinary project.
  • When inviting members to take part, give them time to consider it, and give them as much information as you can about the project.

Funders are becoming increasingly risk averse. Most need some reassurance that researchers have in place systems or structures that can deal with any weaknesses or problems they encounter in their work. One important way that academics can reassure funders is by having a scientific advisory board as part of their projects.

Years ago, when I was involved in an Academy of Finland centre of excellence, having a scientific advisory board was mandatory. The board was there right from the beginning when we were preparing the proposal. Consisting of three internationally known researchers, the board kept track of our work throughout the six-year project and made suggestions on publishing, collaboration and day-to-day scientific work. In our annual meetings we presented our results to the board and received valuable recommendations.

As a result of this experience, I often recommend including a scientific advisory board in a project, even when not required by the funder. I have noticed that such a board can ease or even save a research project and, when properly planned and justified in the proposal, might give the project that extra bit of credibility to get it funded.

The benefits of an advisory board are particularly clear in a large, complex project. The scale of, say, a European Research Council project means that there are more elements that can go wrong. Having external advice is essential; it can give researchers the perspective and objectivity to see the problems for what they are, and the knowledge and experience to offer effective solutions.

A scientific advisory board shouldn’t be seen as management body, but more of a group helping academics with the scientific process. Researchers are always at risk of running into difficult scientific issues, and advice from outside the project is invaluable. Even experienced researchers and groups implemented a board, and feedback from reviewers—and perhaps even more importantly from the researchers themselves—has been nothing but positive.

Who should be on a scientific advisory board?

It is important that researchers do not only choose people they know or whose viewpoints chime with theirs, as some disagreement is necessary. Yes, academics should have distinguished researchers or even gurus that they trust in their discipline on the board, but they should also think of the iconoclasts and critics.

They should also invite individuals with whom they haven’t worked with directly before. These board members might not fully agree on everything that is proposed, but that’s invaluable. The board might be able to point out problems along the way from a different perspective.

For interdisciplinary areas it is important to include scientific board members from all the fields that the research touches upon, especially in areas where the project leaders might not be so strong in.

The size of the scientific advisory board depends on the size and budget of the project, but it often includes between three and five individuals. Bigger board would perhaps be too heterogeneous, and too expensive and too difficult to convene.

How should board members be invited?

How should researchers approach potential board members? First, prospective members should not be doorstepped a week before the deadline. Researchers should approach them early so they have enough time to think about the proposal, to decide whether they have the time and interest to take part.

Second, researchers should tell prospective members as much as they can about the project, pitching it to them. Researchers should explain which funding scheme they are going for, when the deadline is and what board members’ roles would be.

Academics should also clarify the specific expertise that made them approach the potential board members and how it links to their research. They should be clear about when the board would have meetings and whether these meetings have been budgeted for.

Researchers can ask potential members whether they would be willing to comment on the proposal or parts of it, but this should not be expected. If potential members do not know the exact area of work yet, researchers should send links to their personal webpage or other details about their track record. In my experience, many people feel honoured and intrigued to be involved in interesting new projects.

Where does the board fit in the funding proposal?

The scientific advisory board should be fully integrated into the project. While it will primarily sit in the part of the proposal that outlines collaborations and resources, the type and frequency of meetings should be described in the timeline.

Funding applicants should name the board members when listing the project members, explain what expertise they bring to the research, and how their knowledge and experience complement each other. And, of course, the board should be included in the budget: travel and accommodation, meeting costs or possible expert fees. The costs of an advisory board are not very high compared with the benefits gained from good scientific advice.

I recommend at least two face-to-face meetings, one at the beginning and one towards the end of the project. Biannual or at least annual web meetings are essential for board members and researchers to be able to discuss any arising problems. Meetings should be mapped out in a Gantt chart—which illustrates a project schedule—to make clear how they fit with the core work of the project.

Is a scientific advisory board right for me?

If researchers are planning a large project, such a board is crucial from inception to completion. For smaller projects it’s not so essential but can still be useful. Researchers will have to balance the benefits of having external advice with the drawbacks of having more burdensome administration. For a large consortium the picture is more complex: the role of the advisory board should be agreed with all consortium partners.

A scientific advisory board will back up the scientific process and guide researchers in times of frustration, if they get the board membership right. Researchers should also give back to the community by agreeing to serve on a board if asked. In this way, academics can find out about the work of others and play a critical part in making sure that scientific projects are successful.