What I Learnt From The Last Reviews and Panels I did

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What I Learnt From The Last Reviews and Panels I did

In the last six months or so I had the opportunity to review several proposals for different funding bodies as well as to participate in a couple of panels. The following are a few suggestions based on what I observed and learnt:

Observations and lessons for grant applicants:

  • Have a title, a good one:  as trivial as this might sound and as incredulous some of you might be, I witnessed several proposals that did not include a title in the main document. Presumably, this was done to save space, that is, to save ONE line of space. Now, you need to ask yourself whether this is a smart move at all. I would argue that it is not. Its an incredibly silly thing to do. First of all, the title sets the tone for everything that comes afterwards; the title functions as an aide-memoire for reviewers and panel evaluators; a smart, short and clear title can be a differentiator for your proposal. So, if you run out of space and are tempted to cut out the title… Don’t!. Save space elsewhere.
  • Have an acronym, a good one: most proposals do not have an acronym, which forces reviewers and panel members to look up the title of the proposal before, e.g. speaking about it. That is, instead of just talking and defending your proposal, they fumble around paperwork. Thus, don’t make reviewers and panel members’ life difficult, don’t give them extra work to do. Provide a good, catchy acronym to makes your proposal memorable.
  • Have well thought, polished, figures: most of the proposals that came top of the panels I participated had good figures. I have seen proposals that were just an undifferentiated mass of text and inevitably they tend to be ranked lower.
  • Stick to one idea and its associated narrative: several of the mid to low ranking proposals did not stick to the one idea golden rule. In my experience, this is always a mistake. Real estate (i.e. page number) is at a premium when writing grants so don’t dilute your argument across multiple ideas. Remember, often, less is more.
  • Demonstrate need and partnerships:  reviewers were quite scathing about lack of demonstrable need, due to lack of involvement of collaborators, end-users, commercial partners, or other organisations (e.g. NGO, government department, etc). So it is worth thinking through who the wider stakeholders in your proposal are and how best to engage them (e.g. via co-creating the grant, testing prototypes, focus groups, ideation workshops, etc). For more thoughts on this read about pathos here.
  • Respond thoroughly to criticism and queries: the panels in which I participated took a grim view of poorly articulated responses to reviewers. Use the opportunity to address within your response all the issues raised by reviewers, don’t ignore or brush them under the carpet. Don’t waste space paraphrasing long chunks of a review only to answer it in one line. It is ok to summarise main criticisms and to group them within a review or even across reviewers. But then address them in full, politely, to the point and factually. And remember, never use “I didn’t have space in the proposal” as a response, let alone an excuse. All applicants are given the same amount of space so if you were not clear in your document, it’s your fault; own it and address it. Saying “Due to lack of space…” or something similarly foolish begs the question of why you don’t use the space you have in your response to respond rather than to make excuses. Finally, use all the space at your disposal so your answers are detailed.

Observations and lessons for reviewers:

  • Be detailed: when writing a review please remember that a human being is behind the proposal that you are assessing; a person, who has put effort and expectations on the proposal. It is legitimate to be critical, even very critical, but you must be polite and detailed. Avoid ad hominem attacks, let alone sexist or ageist ones. Take the time to explain the reasoning behind your criticism, ideally with technical details of why you think something is wrong within the proposal. Equally, if you are inclined to give a positive review, also be detailed. One liner responses are a disservice to the applicants and the funding body that asked for your advice.
  • Be consistent: I noticed many reviewers who, having been very critical in their textual comments, go on to score the proposal highly. And vice-versa, they praise the proposal in details and then they score it low. These inconsistencies do no help the applicants neither the panel that needs to make a judgment call on a proposal. So please, read the scoring guidelines; ask yourself whether your text comments match the numerical scores and, if they do, whether these align with the scoring guidelines available from the funding body.
  • Calibrate your comments: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence so, if you say a proposal is the best thing since sliced bread then back it up with strong supportive factual comments. Equally, if you say the proposal is beyond redemption then justify in details. Your comments, whether positive or negative, must be calibrated to the evidence you bring to the table. Moreover, your review must be commensurate with your actual expertise. Qualify and quantify your area of work so the proposers and the panel can properly weight your review.

Observations and lessons for heads of departments and deans:

Funding bodies sometimes ask for “institutional support” for some of their grant funding schemes (e.g. fellowships, junior investigator awards, etc). When that happens, heads of departments, schools and deans who write these letters must appreciate and understand the importance these have. Reviewers, panel members and funding agencies’ programme managers look closely at the institutional support letters they receive. In my experience as a grant writer, reviewer and panel member, the best support letters are (1) specific to the applicant, (2) specific to the funding scheme and (3) have both soft and hard support. The best way to address (1) and (2) is to provide a clear context of why this applicant and this grant matters to the institution at the departmental, faculty and even at the organisation level. To match the rhetoric, the letter of support must show what support was provided to the candidate and the general area of the grant in the recent past. But then, there must be a clear commitment to the future. This future commitment must come in two forms.

  • Soft support: Weak institutional support letters focus only on soft support such as career development activities run by the institution HR or other support units, e.g. a tailored PI development plan; mentoring opportunities by one or more senior academics; access to facilities such as office space, library and specialised labs; access to secretarial and technical support; software licenses; etc. These are all ok but again, they must be specific: what career development opportunities and how these differ from those offered at other institutions? what kind of mentoring? by whom? in what form? following what process? etc. But even that level of details is not enough because one could mount a robust argument that this kind of support should be available to all personnel of the institution, especially to junior faculty. Furthermore, one could argue that it should already be happening across the board. Thus when all is said and done, the real differentiator in an institutional support letter is the hard support. 
  • Hard support: It may come in many forms, for example, via access to fully-funded PhD studentships; funds for additional postdoctoral assistants; cash for laboratory refurbishment; cash for bespoke equipment; salary increments and top-ups; full ownership of (the yet to be developed) IP with a view to commercialisation at the end of the grant, etc. In a nutshell, if you say that a given applicant is worth her weight in gold, then put your gold where your mouth is.

A final general observation:

At the last panel that I took part in, a larger than the usual number of proposals were deemed by their reviewers to be at TRL 4 or above. I cannot stop wondering whether this is just a statistical fluke or if it represents a deliberate shift towards sending proposals to review that are already closer to impact (and thus further from fundamental, blue-sky research). In light of the recent UKRI removal of the pathways to impact document, I cannot shake that thought…

Image by Alexandr Ivanov from Pixabay

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