The power of peer review
“Formal, internal peer review definitely leads to better grant applications and that has to have a positive impact on success rates,” says Professor Brendan Davies of the Centre for Plant Sciences (CPS).
Professor Davies’ conviction is well-placed, as the CPS has an impressive grant income per head and the success rate for its applications to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has increased year-on-year since peer group review was introduced in 2006.
“I was a BBSRC grant panel member when I became director of the CPS in 2004, so I knew the review process from the inside,” explains Professor Davies. “The degree of consensus reached by the panel convinced me that good grants share characteristic elements that can be learnt, so we decided to trial peer review as a way to achieve this.”
The CPS panel meets four times a year, seven days before the BBSRC deadline. This allows applicants time to respond to the feedback and make last minute changes to their BBSRC submission, or decide to delay it until the next round. The panel exactly mirrors the BBSRC panel, it even includes several academics with current and previous experience of committee membership. Each application – which has to be complete, with all relevant charts and annexes – is represented by two introducing members (IMs) who have two days to study it and then present their observations during the meeting, before it’s discussed and scored by the whole panel.
“Time and again, different people looking at the same grant will make the same comments, so you realise that there is some underlying basic, ‘good’ grant that people can easily recognise,” continues Professor Davies. “If two IMs haven’t understood a point, then it’s pretty clear that the application needs more work before it’s submitted to the real panel. Funding is extremely competitive and there’s really only one chance to get it right, so any process that improves an application has to be useful.
“The applicant isn’t allowed to make comments, so it can be uncomfortable for people to hear their application being criticised, but a crucial part of the CPS approach is that the process is driven by team spirit. Everyone owns the CPS grant income, so we all benefit from our colleagues’ success and it enhances our overall reputation. Even if increased funding isn’t a direct, provable outcome of peer review, there are enough other benefits to make it a really worthwhile process.”
“Underpinning all successful applications is strong science, but the clear presentation of these ideas and their significance is the aspect that can tip the balance between success and failure at committee.”
Dr Chris West
“It can be quite hard to sit and listen to your colleagues dissect your application, but it’s an extremely worthwhile process because it helps you to recognise what a good grant looks like. The peer group review process has definitely improved the standard of grants being put forward by CPS.”
Professor Peter Urwin
New Research Support website goes live
A new section on the Research Support website has been developed by the University’s faculty research managers to provide practical support to academic staff in the development of their Pathways to Impact for RCUK applications. This includes hotlinks to specific guidance provided by each of the Research Councils, advice on how to present Impact in the application and advice on eligible costs associated with Impact activities. The information is specifically targeted at academic staff and for the research support staff who support them in this activity.
From the end of June this website will be live at http://researchsupport.leeds.ac.uk/index.php/academic_staff/pathways_to_impact/