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Funding decisions: insider insights

Watching funding decisions being made at MRC board or panel meetings is an opportunity we offer to early career researchers to learn about how the peer review process works. With transparency the theme of this year’s Peer Review Week, MRC Peer Review Programme Manager Rachel Prosser asked some recent observers to share what they learned from the experience.

“The board really do care about the science.”

Dr Laura Swan, Lecturer in cell biology, University of Liverpool

Image credit: Dr Massimiliano Stagi

“Like everyone writing MRC grants, the rebellious thought passes ‘does anyone even read this?’ – as you anxiously adjust page margins, click boxes on JeS forms and wonder if you’re the only human being on the planet who cares if your workflow diagram accurately shows how long it takes to make a cell line.

So when I took a chilly 6am train to London, to observe an MRC board meeting in action, with other NIRG grant holders, I was very curious to know what the board cared about.

Happily, it’s the science, and they do read it. They will argue passionately about your choice of cell line, and they cared more about well-justified arguments and experiments than they do about the size of the grant. It was a relief to feel your efforts might be appreciated!”

“Make the life of the introducing member easy.”

Dr Catarina Gadelha, Lecturer in molecular cell biology, University of Nottingham

Image credit: University of Nottingham

“During a board meeting, each proposal is introduced by a designated ‘introducing’ board member. The most important piece of advice I could give to colleagues is to make the life of this introducing member easy.

Write a clear yet concise proposal that covers your question, why it’s relevant, how it’ll be tackled and what the caveats and limitations are. If the introducing member cannot easily extract the information required for discussion, they will have a hard time arguing your case and convincing their panel colleagues of the proposal’s worth.”

Avoid overselling the data.”

Dr Philip Holland, Lecturer in neuroscience, Kings College London

“I had the privilege of being invited to observe an MRC board after my first attempt at a New Investigator Research Grant (NIRG) was unsuccessful. Clearly someone had read it and decided I could do with the help! Watching the panel, I was struck by how even the playing field was and how even I could understand the best grants as written.

Second time around I focused on the application narrative. I asked for advice from colleagues in four different disciplines to mimic the panel makeup, addressing any confusing aspects. This then allowed my science to shine through. It worked and I now have a NIRG.

Beyond that, one major thing that stood out for me was to avoid overselling the data. The panel immediately spotted tenuous links to a disease, manufactured to create some translation in the application.”

“The support of colleagues is essential.”

Dr Pegine Walrad, Research Lecturer in molecular parasitology, University of York

Image credit: Phil Roberts

“After observing an MRC board meeting, I advise colleagues seeking MRC funding to cover four points: 1) demonstrate the capability to do everything proposed, 2) estimate and justify the timescale and costs realistically, with proper statistical analysis, 3) assemble the perfect team in the best environment to conduct the research, 4) ensure they haven’t already done proposed experiments.

I didn’t realise the board considered grant reviews in the context of comments from peer reviewers. Furthermore, all panel members are informed by the panel experts’ recommendation and so the support of colleagues is essential; emphasising networking and good representation. I found visiting the panel extremely useful in terms of insight gained. In particular, the depth to which each application is considered was very impressive.”

If you are an MRC-funded early career researcher, with less than two years left of MRC grant funding, you are eligible to observe a board meeting, subject to availability. Find out how on our website.

Guidance and a video explaining the MRC peer review process is also available.

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