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Breaking the mould

Image: joiseyshowaa [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

A young funder supporting disruptive mental health research

United States-based charity 1907 Research was established in 2019 with a goal of breaking the mould of mental health research. With a pledge to ground all of the research it funded in biology, it sought high-risk, potentially paradigm-shifting projects in the first round of its Trailblazer Awards the year after. The three inaugural fellows won with projects on neuroimmunity, the influence of cerebrospinal fluid flow on depression, and neuromodulation.

The awards have returned and this year offer $120,000 (£84,800) over two years to researchers based in Canada, the US or the UK. Higher education and research institutions can nominate up to two applicants by 15 June, and applicants should submit full proposals by 30 June.

Applicants should be within 10 years of the award of their PhD or MD degree, and allowances are made for those who have had caring responsibilities. The award includes a $20,000 gift to the primary investigator; the remaining $100,000 can be spent on consumables, equipment and staff salaries.

Adam Pieczonka, the charity’s co-founder and head of award management, sets out what makes 1907 Research different.

Where does the name 1907 Research come from?

It comes from the year the Plaza Hotel in New York was built. It was built to stand over 100 years and still look beautiful. 

Mental health is something that’s going to take many decades to solve, so it’s less about a silver bullet and more about creating a system that allows money to go to the right opportunities and brings out the novel, high-risk ideas that many times are overlooked by the current system.

Why do you focus on ‘disruption’?

Where are we with mental health today? We have a load of low-efficacy outcomes that are based on symptoms. If we go in knowing the current system isn’t working, then every single award we fund should be disruptive. It’s actually a pretty low bar. We concentrate on early stage researchers, as they’re more willing to take risks.

Can you explain your status of being ‘symptom-agnostic’?

An example would be depression. Labelling symptoms as depression is similar to saying the flu and Covid-19 are both the ‘cough disease’. It’s just a blanket symptom that says nothing about the underlying genetics, endocrinology or trauma that the person has experienced. If somebody’s going to consider depression, we’d suggest that they put a lot of thought into specifying that a bit more. 

There’s a lot of crowding around illness based on symptoms. We’re focused on examining the patient holistically, from lifetime experience and memory stored, to genetics and epigenetics.

What can the $100,000 be used for?

In general, it can’t be used for salary support for the principaI investigator, but it can be used for salary support for other lab employees and consultants. 

We’ve made it very flexible in the funding agreement so within that, pretty much anything goes—supplies, equipment, anything needed in the lab—so long as the principal investigator is signing off on the expense. 

What we’re really trying to do is ensure the researcher has full control over budget expenditures and then we have a cap on the admin overhead. I think often with grant proposals there’s so much specificity that there’s no flexibility.

Who reviews bids?

Both the scientific advisory board and research committee. Final decisions are voted on by the scientific advisory board.

If your reviewers are senior researchers entrenched in the paradigms that need disrupting, how will disruptive proposals be selected?

Well, one thing I’ll say is that the unanimous feedback from our advisory board directors and research directors is that we’re nothing like other funding bodies for a variety of reasons.

What are they?

The multidisciplinary team for one. The advisory board and research committee are multidisciplinary and we recruit our team by function—psychiatry, neuroscience, engineering, genetics—rather than recruiting symptom ‘experts’. We are also very clear that we encourage high-risk and contrarian ideas. Added to that, we support emerging scientists preferentially and are committed to a blinded, data-driven approach. 

How does that work?

We remove names and names of institutions from résumés. When you take the blinded approach, it forces the grant reviewer to review the science alone. We collect absolute and relative ranking data based on the blinded reviews, and then drive our process on statistics using a larger sample of grant reviewers. When we have our final deliberations, the statistics guide the conversation.

How many applications did you get last time? What separated the best from the rest?

We had more than 150 applications from host institutions last year, with 90 full nominations reviewed. There are four different criteria that we use: science, innovation, relevance and execution. Innovation, I think, is what made them stand out the most. There’s still too much herding around similar ideas.

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com