Why We Need Grant Application Peer Review

September 21, 2016 Rachel Prosser

mrc peer review.jpg

Our peer review posts are often focused on journal reviewers. Today, we take a look at a different type of review activity – grant reviewing. We asked Rachel Prosser of the Medical Research Council to explore the role of grant reviewers in the context of the Recognition theme of this year’s Peer Review Week.

Peer Review Week 2016 provides a great opportunity to highlight peer review processes and the important role that peer review plays in research funding. We are very grateful to our reviewers, who give their time to ensure that the Medical Research Council (MRC) invests in the most important and high-quality research aimed at improving human health.

The MRC is one of the UK’s seven research councils who together invest around £3 billion in research each year on behalf of the UK tax payer.

Each research council is given a budget by the UK government to fund research by awarding grants on a competitive basis and, at the MRC, we fund world-class research aimed at improving human health.

We received over 2,000 applications for funding last year, but don’t have infinite amounts of money. We therefore need to be sure that the research we support is of the highest quality and that public money is spent wisely. We need to ensure that the process of deciding which research is funded is fair, rigorous and informed by the best and most up-to-date scientific knowledge. To do this, and ensure high quality decision-making, we use a peer review process where scientists and other experts review the work of other scientists.

At the MRC, we use a two-stage peer review process where proposals are first assessed by independent experts, and then by MRC research board or panel members. Our research boards and panels each have their own scope of interests and are made up of a large number of researchers with broad and diverse expertise.

Peer reviewers’ assessments are invaluable in helping the MRC research board or panel make funding decisions. The written reviews also provide useful feedback to our grant applicants to help them improve their research. You can find out more about how our peer review processes work in our peer review web pages or by watching our peer review animation.

Of course, the grant application peer review process isn’t always easy. It can be really difficult for us to secure a sufficient number of reviews for each proposal and to ensure these reviews are provided by the most appropriate people. Sometimes we have to approach as many as 15 people to secure only three or four reviews, which involves a lot of time and effort for the office. However, obtaining these expert opinions is the best way to ensure we fund the best quality science.

We rely on receiving high-quality reviews. The reviews enable our boards and panels to make well-informed decisions, so it’s important that they are clear and objective, providing well-justified comments and constructive criticism.

It is also important that peer review covers the changing needs of the scientific landscape. One particular issue we are tackling, alongside the Academy of Medical Sciences, BBSRC, and Wellcome Trust, is the need to improve the reproducibility and reliability of research. The methodological rigor of all grant applications is scrutinized during the peer review process to ensure that the proposed research will deliver robust findings. However, often insufficient detail is provided to allow proper scrutiny, due to space limitations. We have recently added an additional one-page annex to the MRC online application form, allowing for more detail on methodology and experimental design. Additionally, we have offered training for board and panel members, to enable peer reviewers and board and panel members to better scrutinize experimental design in grant applications.

To help MRC peer reviewers, we have published updated guidance and tips for writing a good review. We also asked Professor Eleanor Riley, the Deputy Chair of the MRC Infections and Immunity Board, to share her thoughts on what makes a good review. Sharing expertise is important, and we hope that some of these tips may also be helpful for journal publishing peer review.

Image credit: Medical Research Council


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