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8 top tips for writing a useful grant review

The time and effort that peer reviewers give to the MRC peer review process is invaluable in helping our research boards and panels make funding decisions. MRC Peer Review Programme Manager Rachel Prosser asked board and panel members for tips on writing a grant application review.

Arrows emanate from a central point to reviewers around the world1. Know what you’re doing

It sounds obvious, but it’s important to read the guidance carefully. It’s there to help you use your expertise to provide the best review possible. Is it a grant? Is it a fellowship? Different MRC grant schemes have specific assessment criteria so, before you get started, check what type of proposal you’re being asked to review. Remember: if you have concerns about any element of the review or the process, please just get in touch before you start – we’re really happy to help.

2. Make it (un)personal

Try to keep your review strictly professional, not personal. Bear in mind that your report will be fed back to the applicant who will have an opportunity to respond to any questions that you raise. To remain anonymous, it’s important to avoid including anything in your assessment that will identify you personally. This includes making references to your own work, where you have worked or who you have worked with.

3. Be clear and conciseReviewer in a lab

Use clear, accessible language and avoid jargon – not everybody reading the comment will be a specialist in the field. Ask yourself these specific questions. There is no need to reiterate the content of the proposal or re-state the assessment questions as the proposal will be read carefully by board or panel members.

4. Point out strengths and weaknesses

If you find a flaw, explain the implications: do they invalidate a single result, or make a significant portion of the grant impractical? Can you identify what they could do better? Are you familiar with an alternative, more suitable approach? Tell us!

The proposal should contain everything you need to be able to formulate an opinion. Consider the following questions: are the researchers up to the job? Do they have the right team, experience and infrastructure? Are they leading the way in their field? Does it look like good value for money?

5. Praise good grantsReviewer in an office

If it’s a really good proposal, then say so and tell us why. Sometimes we get short reviews that simply say the grant is great (or not) which isn’t much help! The board or panel members might not know that a particular group are the most qualified in the world to answer that specific question, or that the question is absolutely pivotal at this point in time.

6. Back it up

Your comments and score will be used to help board and panel members in their own assessment of the grant, so make sure yours match up and include references where appropriate. Board and panel members may use your review to help decide whether the proposal should be discussed at the full meeting or be rejected at triage. Your report will also be fed back anonymously to the applicant; it is important that the applicant can interpret your comments so they can respond to any questions you raise.

7. Be aware of unconscious bias

We all have biases, what are yours? Be aware of them and consider the proposal objectively. Think about it outside of the context of your own field of research.

8. Give it timeReviewer at home

Finally, give yourself time to read the proposal thoroughly before writing and submitting your review. The time taken to review a proposal can vary but you’ll get faster with experience. If you feel you don’t have enough time to complete the review, please contact us for a deadline extension. We would rather you ask us for an extension, and provide a better review, than submit a review that is brief and uninformative because you didn’t have enough time to consider it in detail.

Detailed guidance is available on the MRC website. Learn more about how the MRC peer review process works by watching our animationIf you have any queries please contact us at peer.review@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk

Rachel Prosser explains why we need grant application review for Peer Review Week 2016.

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