Funding meetings - MRC

1. Roles at the meeting

Proposals that pass the triage stage proceed to the full funding meeting. Some proposals may be assessed with a face to face interview but most are assessed on paper by a research board or panel, a group of high calibre, senior scientists at professorial level (or equivalent), based in a leading UK or European research institute or university or pharmaceutical, biotechnology or life sciences company with broad experience of cutting-edge research.

1.1 Medical Research Council (MRC) staff

Head of theme

The head of theme is the accounting officer for the board or panel budget and responsible for delivery of board or panel contributions to MRC delivery plan objectives.

At a funding meeting the head of theme manages the available commitment budget which may be used to support:

  • response mode grants or fellowships within the remit of the board or panel
  • MRC contributions to proposals of joint interest from other funders
  • unit or institute funding above 90% baseline level
  • funding or renewing centres
  • post-award adjustments.

Programme managers

The programme managers manage a subset of proposals, liaising with applicants and overseeing the peer review process. They are the point of contact for these proposals at the meeting and communicate important information to the board or panel. Programme managers minute discussions and communicate decisions and feedback to applicants.

Board and panel team

The board and panel team manage the logistics of the meeting.

1.2 Board or panel

Chair

The chair is responsible for ensuring that funding decisions are credible and that all members’ views are taken into account in decision-making. It is also their responsibility to ensure all proposals for funding are assessed in accordance with the published process and criteria.

Deputy chair

The deputy chair takes on the role of chair when the chair has a conflict of interest with any of the proposals being discussed.

Introducers

Two or three board or panel members are assigned to each proposal as introducers by MRC head office and present the proposal at a meeting. Introducers are selected for their relevant expertise in and independence from the proposal. Should expertise be required from another field, guest introducers are invited to contribute.

Introducer one presents a brief synopsis of the proposal, focusing on its strengths and weaknesses aligned with the assessment criteria. Introducers two and three (where applicable) do not reiterate points already made but highlight additional points and any significant differences in opinion. If applicants are interviewed (for example, for an MRC fellowship), introducers instead take it in turn to question them. Each introducer, in light of their own views, the views of the expert reviewers, and the applicant’s response to the reviewer comments, provides an indicative score between one and ten, using the scoring matrix for board and panel meetings.

Board and panel members

Members participate in an open discussion following the introducers’ evaluation of each proposal. If applicants are interviewed, members have the opportunity to ask additional questions of the applicant before then participating in a closed discussion. After hearing the indicative scores from the introducers, each member scores the proposals anonymously using the one to ten scoring matrix for board and panel meetings.

2. Managing conflicts of interest

The integrity of peer review is of paramount importance. This means that any personal interests as a board or panel member must never influence, or be seen to influence, the outcome. A conflict of interest exists where:

  • the applicant is a close friend or relative of the board or panel member
  • members are directly involved in the work the applicant proposes to carry out
  • members may benefit financially from the work (for example, if involved with a company acting as a project partner)
  • members work in the same research organisation as the applicants, co-applicants or project partners
  • members work closely with the applicants (for example, as a co-author or PhD supervisor) or have done within the last five years.

Where a member has a conflict of interest with a proposal, the member would be asked to leave the room for the entirety of the discussion and would not participate in the scoring or ranking of the proposal. Where a member is an applicant or could be seen to benefit financially from the outcome, the member would, additionally, not be able to view any of the paperwork relating to the proposal concerned.

3. Assessment criteria

In reaching a score, members consider a proposal based upon its quality, impact and productivity.

Quality

Drawing on the assessment criteria used by the peer reviewers and their comments, is the proposal of high quality?

Impact

How big an impact might the proposal have? In this context, MRC considers impact to have two distinct meanings:

Scientific (academic) impact:

  • how much value could the proposal add to the knowledge base in the area?
  • is it addressing a key gap or question?

Economic and societal impact:

  • how does the proposal fit into the wider societal context?
  • Is it likely to have scope to impact on treatment practices or the wider policy context?
  • Is it likely to lead to novel technologies or improve quality of life or the economic competitiveness of the UK?

Productivity

Does the proposal have a favourable balance between risk and reward?

Members also consider the assessment criteria for the different grant types.

In addition, members consider information relating to the justification of methods, statistical analyses and experimental design aspects of the proposal. If this information is not suitable or sufficiently detailed to convince the board or panel that the proposed experiments will be carried out appropriately to produce robust and reproducible research, the proposal is scored five or below (unfundable in the scoring matrix for board and panel meetings) and rejected for funding.

4. Further considerations

4.1 Unconscious bias:

Members must maintain objectivity in their assessment and be aware of the potential for unconscious bias and the impact this may have on review.

All board and panel members are encouraged to attend MRC-led unconscious bias workshops specifically designed to help members:

  • explore the way in which unconscious biases can impact funding decision-making
  • learn to identify the types of bias that impact peer review
  • undertake techniques to help members protect funding decision making from bias
  • discuss the implications of this for the different stakeholders involved in funding.

4.2 Responsible use of metrics

Reviewers should not use journal-based metrics, such as Journal Impact Factors, as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles, to assess an individual scientist’s contributions. This is in line with our commitment to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment.

4.3 Career breaks and flexible working

The assessment of MRC proposals frequently involves appraisal of the applicant’s track record. In making this appraisal, members consider time spent outside the active research environment, whether through career breaks or flexible working.

5. COVID-19

5.1 COVID-19 interruption

UKRI recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities and are committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their career such as breaks and delays, disruptive working patterns and conditions, the loss of ongoing work, and role changes that may have been caused by the pandemic.

When undertaking your assessment of the research project, you should consider the unequal impacts of the impact that COVID-19-related disruption might have had on the track record and career development of those individuals included in the proposal, and you should focus on the capability of the applicant and their wider team to deliver the research they are proposing. Any comments made by reviewers relating to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic which negatively impact their assessment of the applicants should be disregarded.

5.2 COVID-19 considerations when reviewing proposals

UKRI acknowledges that it is a challenge for applicants to determine the future impacts of COVID-19 while the pandemic continues to evolve. Applicants are advised that their applications should be based on the information available at the point of submission and, if applicable, the known application specific impacts of COVID-19 should be accounted for. Where known impacts have occurred, these should be highlighted in the application, including the assumptions and information at the point of submission. Applicants are not required to include contingency plans for the potential impacts of COVID-19. Requests for travel both domestically and internationally could be included in accordance with the relevant scheme guidelines, noting the above advice.

When undertaking your assessment of the research project you should assess the project as written, noting that any changes that the project might require in the future, which arise from the COVID-19 pandemic, will be resolved as a post-award issue by UKRI if the project is successful. Potential complications related to COVID-19 should not affect your assessment or the score you give the project and you should disregard any comments made by reviewers that go against the guidance supplied by UKRI.

6. Funding adjustments

The board or panel may prune (make a lower commitment) to an award than requested by the applicant where either the programme of work is not fully justified by peer review or specific resources are not fully justified for this programme of work.

The decision to prune occurs during the main assessment of the proposal prior to scoring, not in the later ranking and funding decisions. Scoring is carried out based on the value of the pruned award.

7. Scoring

Following discussion, each proposal is scored from one to ten by each member using the scoring matrix for board and panel meetings. Scores are submitted anonymously and collated electronically. The median score of the individual member scores, rounded to the nearest whole number, is used to rank all proposals under consideration. The final median score is made known to applicants.

8. Ranking

At the end of a meeting, all proposals are ranked by their median score. A cumulative commitment line can then be drawn, to determine the median scoring categories in which all grants can be funded and the scoring category in which not all the applications can be supported, given the available budget. Additional consideration of the applications in the latter category is then used to determine which of those attaining the same score should be supported, and which not, taking into account quality, likely impact and fit to MRC’s strategic priorities.

For proposals assessed at one of MRC’s four research boards, applications that address either MRC’s long-standing commitment to new investigators or any identified board opportunities will be given special consideration in this process. Context and further information about the board opportunities can be found in the board opportunities overview.

9. Invited resubmissions

A declined application is typically not eligible for resubmission within 12 months from the date of full submission. This moratorium can be waived by the board or panel, where suggested modifications may make the work competitive. Low scores are no bar to an invited resubmission where appropriate and may be suitable where key issues undermine a proposal.

10. Communication of decisions

MRC head office staff communicate funding decisions to applicants within ten working days of the funding meeting.

Meeting outcome reports are published following each meeting.

11. Feedback

Applicants receive peer review comments before the funding meeting. Afterwards, they receive a summary of the board or panel’s discussion, prepared by MRC head office.

Last updated: 28 February 2022

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