Conflicts of interest
The integrity of peer review is of paramount importance. This means that any personal interests as a reviewer must never influence, or be seen to influence, the outcome. The Medical Research Council (MRC) considers that a conflict of interest exists where:
- the applicant is a close friend or relative
- you are directly involved in the work the applicant proposes to carry out
- you may benefit financially from the work (for example if you are involved with a company acting as a project partner)
- you work in the same research organisation as an applicant, co-applicant or project partner
- you work closely with the applicant, for example, as a co-author or PhD supervisor, or have done within the last five years.
If you have one of these conflicts of interest you should decline to review the proposal. This list is not exhaustive, so if you consider that you have a conflict of interest you must declare it. If you have been asked to review through Je-S then you should do this by completing the Declarations of Interest section. This will allow us to decide whether your review is eligible. For reviewers invited directly by MRC, or if you are unsure whether a conflict exists, please email email@example.com to discuss with the board or panel team involved.
Reviewers must ensure they maintain objectivity in their assessment and should be aware of the potential for unconscious bias and the impact this may have on peer review.
MRC have put in place various steps to overcome bias, including:
- monitoring diversity on MRC boards and panels
- providing clear assessment criteria
- encouraging all board and panel members to attend MRC-led unconscious bias workshops.
These workshops are specifically designed to help you:
- 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.
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.
Career breaks and flexible working
The assessment of MRC proposals frequently involves appraisal of the applicant’s track record. In making this appraisal, reviewers should take into account time spent outside the active research environment, whether through career breaks or flexible working.
Impact of career breaks and flexible working
In assessing the effects of career breaks or flexible working, panels will note the applicant’s career trajectory and potential at the beginning of a break, relative to the stage of the applicant’s career. In assessing applicants, panels will recognise that the effects on productivity of a career break, or a period of flexible working, may continue beyond the return to work. The following areas may be affected but note that this list is not exhaustive:
- presentation and publication record
- track record of securing funding, including time to obtain preliminary data
- maintaining networks of research contacts and research collaborations
- recruitment of staff
- time required for training
- the ability to take up opportunities in different geographical locations
- the ability to take up courses, sabbaticals, visits, placements and secondments.
Definitions of career break and flexible working
Career breaks are defined as a substantive period of time spent outside research. Reasons may include the following but note that this list is not exhaustive:
- personal reasons
- trying out a new career
- parental leave
- ill health, injury or disability
- caring or domestic responsibilities
- study, training or further education.
Flexible working describes any working arrangement where the number of hours worked, or the time that work is undertaken, vary from standard practice. This could include the following but please note that this list is not exhaustive:
- reduction in full time hours
- long-term partial return to work
- job sharing
- compressed working hours
- term-time only working
- annualised hours.
MRC remit and multi and interdisciplinary proposals
If MRC has invited you to review, please respond on the assumption that the proposal falls predominantly within our remit and that discussions with other research councils have taken place if needed. Do not be tempted to adjust your comments or score downward because you do not think that the research fits fully within MRC’s remit. All of the research councils encourage research that adds value by linking science across our remits. Research proposals that need to span the distinct remits of different councils will be handled by one lead council, with others contributing to the review and funding as needed.
If invited to review multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary proposals, you may not be familiar with all aspects of the research. You may have been approached as a reviewer because of your particular expertise in one aspect or because of your experience of cross-disciplinarity. If you feel confident to only comment on particular elements of the proposal, please restrict your comments to these, and tell us what they are in the Declaration of Interests section in Je-S. Reviews will also be sought from experts in all aspects to ensure appropriate coverage.
Cross-disciplinary proposals should clearly articulate the added value of the approach, presenting an explicit view of how they will gain more than the sum of their parts from the collaborations. We do not necessarily expect a step-change in state of the art for each individual discipline – the combination of the disciplines may be the novelty. Reviewers should apply a broad perspective to consider this, even if an expert in only one aspect of the proposal. Multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research may necessitate a researcher moving disciplines and while it is important you are convinced that the appropriate logistical support is in place (including training where necessary), you should take care to review the project and not the applicant. Reviewers are encouraged to consider more deeply the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach, the appropriate disciplines to involve, the integration required and how it can be achieved.
While MRC’s role is not to support industrially led research, MRC strongly encourages academic-industry collaboration and will separately review any collaboration to ensure that MRC support would be appropriate. Please do feel free to comment if you think the project merits MRC support or, for example, should be supported directly by industry or through other means, such as via Innovate UK, but do not modify your overall score as a result.
Medical research raises a number of ethical issues. MRC’s requirements and expectations relating to research involving humans or animals, or where there are other sensitivities, are outlined in the MRC Ethics Series.
Many of the finer points of proposals addressing the issues will involve scrutiny by an independent ethics committee, but we also need to be satisfied that the work is acceptable. Therefore we ask all reviewers to:
- follow good ethical practice in their role of assessing proposals
- consider carefully the ethical acceptability of research proposals and, where necessary, highlight areas MRC may need to consider
- assist MRC in identifying any wider potential implications, for example, could a piece of non-clinical research involving techniques such as synthetic biology or animal cloning have far-reaching ethical implications?
Investigations involving human participants, associated data or material
Our expectations and requirements around research involving humans are outlined in the MRC Ethics Series. Specific guidance and advice is available for work involving children, individuals who lack mental capacity, participants in developing societies, personal information, human tissues and biological samples.
Although most of this work involves independent scrutiny by an independent ethics committee, MRC also needs to be satisfied that the work is acceptable. Many proposals have broad-ranging programmes but do not include detailed protocols, so it is useful to focus on obvious problem areas and novel issues, including:
- clinical trials – these are submitted with detailed protocols
- proposals which may involve potentially novel risks need to take into account public as well as scientific perception
- proposals where consent cannot readily be given or is not going to be obtained
- proposals which entail using data or material in ways which the donor may not have envisaged
- proposals in areas of public concern (for example, genetics) where the potential relevance to health may not be obvious.
If you consider that there are particular ethical considerations around a proposal, please raise these in your review so that they may be considered by the board or panel.
Investigations involving animals
We expect all proposals to conform to the guidance in Responsibility in the use of animals in bioscience research: Expectations of the major research council and charitable funding bodies.
Reviewers are asked to consider whether:
- animals are needed for the proposed research
- the potential benefit justifies any adverse effects on the animals
- the species and model chosen are appropriate
- the experimental design and planned statistical framework chosen are suitable to address the scientific objectives
- the primary outcomes to be assessed and frequency of measurements and interventions are appropriate
- the total number of animals and chosen sample sizes are appropriate in relation to the planned statistical analyses
- appropriate plans to minimise experimental bias are in place.
This requirement applies whether or not the animals are to be purchased with MRC funds and whether the work is to be undertaken within or outside the UK.
Risks of research misuse
MRC’s guidance can be found in Managing risks of research misuse.
Reviewers are asked to consider:
- are there any ethical, safety or security issues or other potential adverse consequences associated with the proposed research?
- whether these issues would include any tangible risks meaning that the research could be misused for harmful purposes. Such purposes would include actions which lead to harm to humans, animals or the environment including terrorist misuse
- if such issues exist, have these been addressed satisfactorily in the proposal?
Investigations involving institutions or external bodies
Where a proposal involves study at the level of institutions or communities, it is important to ensure that ethical issues and potential impact from the group or institutional perspective have been properly addressed.
UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused major interruptions and disruptions across our communities and is committed to ensuring that individual applicants and their wider team, including partners and networks, are not penalised for any disruption to their careers 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.
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 have been 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 have been highlighted in the application, including the assumptions and information at the point of submission. Applicants were 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 to 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.
Further concerns about the acceptability of a proposal
If you have any queries about the acceptability of a proposal which are not covered in MRC’s guidance, contact the relevant board or panel team.
Last updated: 28 February 2022