Funders vary in how they review applications, but there are common processes you can expect to find in most grant rounds. Knowing your way around the review process will help you to prepare your proposal and co-ordinate your timeline.
Jump to specific advice on:
Most research funders (including all Research Councils and AMRC members) fund research on a competitive basis using a process called expert peer review. Peer review means that your application is assessed by a number of senior researchers (or peers) who work in similar areas of research. Peer review within all AMRC member charities is carried out according to the following principles:
Accountability: Charities are open and transparent about their peer review procedures and publish details, including the names of members of scientific advisory panels or other decision-making bodies.
Balance: Scientific advisory panels reflect a fair balance of experience and scientific disciplines.
Independent decision making: The scientific advisory panel is independent of the charity's administrative staff and trustees.
Rotation of scientific advisers: Scientific advisory panel members have a fixed term of office and do not have tenure.
Impartiality: Scientific advisory panels include a significant number of non-beneficiaries. There is a conflict of interest policy and potential beneficiaries are not present when decisions are made.
The exact process used will vary between funders and each of their funding rounds but in general there are likely to be (at least) two stages to the review process:
FIRST STAGE REVIEW
The purpose of the first review stage is to triage the number of applications and produce a shortlist. Funders will often shortlist twice the number of applications that they are able to fund (provided the applications meet the necessary quality threshold) in order to balance the additional workload for both applicants and reviewers against giving as many applications a chance of being funded. In some instances, an outline application is requested rather than a full bid; to save researchers spending a lot of time on an application that has a very low chance of being funded.
This first stage of peer review may be undertaken by members of the scientific advisory panel, and/or by external peer reviewers. Increasingly, funders are including lay representatives in the panel or peer review groups. In this case, you may be asked to write a plain English summary of your application. Once comments and scores are collected they will then be considered in order to produce a shortlist. If the first stage is undertaken by members of the scientific advisory panel it is almost certain that external expert peer reviewers will be sought at a later stage in the process.
If successfully shortlisted, applicants may:
- Be invited to submit a full application, and will probably receive a summary of the peer review comments to address as part of this.
- Be invited to revise their application (if a full application was submitted), again receiving a summary of the peer review comments to address; this is called a rebuttal.
- Be invited to an interview, and will receive a summary of the peer review comments.
- Be informed that their application has progressed to stage two where it will be further considered for funding, but receive no feedback from peer review or require any further action at this stage.
Depending on the format of the round, further peer review comments are likely to be sought on the shortlisted applications, prior to either a funding panel meeting, or an interview. During a funding panel meeting, each shortlisted application will be discussed in turn. Members of the panel are assigned to ‘lead’ the discussion of applications that are closest to their field of expertise, and all panellists will have a copy of the peer review comments and scores that have already been awarded. Any panellists who have a conflict of interest with an application will be asked to leave the room prior to any discussion and will not score or vote on that application.
Due to the breadth of some funding calls, the panel assembled will cover a wide variety of scientific expertise, and the lead reviewer for an application may not necessarily work in a very similar field, for example a multidisciplinary panel will likely have one or two respiratory researchers who would be expected to lead discussion of any respiratory application.
Of the three major funders, the Wellcome Trust interviews candidates for grants and NIHR currently interviews applicants for Fellowships or i4i Product Development and Challenge Awards. The Wellcome Trust is happy to talk to candidates before their interviews and we strongly advise that you take full advantage of this opportunity. Many other funders may also hold interviews as part of their review process. Applicants are interviewed by a panel and asked to elaborate and justify their proposal.
How to prepare for an interview:
- Be your best on the day
Just like the application form, the interview is a sales pitch. This is your chance to show the panel that they should fund your project over the others applying so make sure you are as prepared as possible. Ensure the basics are covered: arrive on time and well-rested.
- Research the panel
Find out who is the respiratory expert on the panel and what their research focuses on and be prepared for more detailed questions. If no one on the panel is an expert in your area your approach should reflect this.
- Talk to people who have been successful
The best source of advice on Wellcome Trust interviews are people who have been through the process successfully. Ask colleagues who have received Wellcome Trust funding for advice.
It is impossible to predict exactly what you will be asked at interview, but a few subjects are certain to come up. Practise explaining your research in two, five or ten minutes and explaining the risks, as well as the mitigations you have planned.
You have much more control over how a panel considers your application than if you were not in the room. Interviews are a great opportunity to sell your research to the panel.
If you are not successful, see our advice on what to do next:
Applying for funding is an intensely competitive process. If you find out that you have been unsuccessful, use it as an opportunity to learn and hone your idea and application for next time.
Ask for feedback; all funders provide feedback either in person or by phone.
Give yourself some time and then go through your application again. Alongside this, show a colleague what the referees’ comments were. Colleagues who have experience on panels will spot things that might explain the result.
Keep in mind that applying for funding is a skill in itself. The more you practise
it, the better you will become.