The assessment process
Much of the time research teams are focused on getting the application written and submitted without spending too much time considering what happens next – ie the assessment process.
This can often lead to two issues: not writing for the audiences that will assess aspects of the proposal; and underestimating the amount of time the process will take.
Assessment can differ significantly from call to call and funder to funder. Even within UKRI, the Research Councils approach things slightly differently. However, many funders, particularly the Research Councils, do follow the same basic assessment process and structure.
What happens after submission?
- The academic presses ‘submit’.
- The Principal Investigator’s (PI) Faculty Research and Innovation Office approves the application and submits on behalf of the University of Leeds.
- The funder receives the application.
- Back office staff check to pick up any obvious issues (eg formats not followed, missing attachments etc). At this point the application may be returned to the University or rejected out-of-hand.
- A Programme Manager or Scheme Lead checks that the proposal appears to fit within the remit of the scheme and doesn’t obviously fall foul of any eligibility issues. The proposal is rejected or returned if issues are identified. They also identify expert peer reviewers based on the proposal keywords and classifications.
- The proposal is sent to the minimum number of expert reviewers to score proposals against the key criterion and give an overall score. Occasionally, especially for outline calls, funders may skip this step and go straight to panel.
- Reviews go back to the funder and, if review scores are relatively low and the proposal doesn’t appear to be competitive, it can be rejected without going to panel.
- For some funders, such as the Research Councils, the PI is given the opportunity to respond to the reviewers’ comments. This isn’t always included in the process, but it is standard practice for many calls.
- The application documents, reviews and the PI response are sent to panel introducers (usually two) who typically get a couple of weeks to prepare.
- The assessment panel is held. Project introducers present a brief outline of the application, the main points of the peer reviewers’ comments and whether they feel the PI response has adequately addressed their concerns. Panels sometimes cover a broad range of specialisms, so they may not be specialists in your field.
- The whole panel ranks the applications and agrees final scores. The panels aren’t responsible for deciding the cut off point for funding; that depends on the size of the grants and the pot of money available. Anything not considered to be excellent science (usually scoring 7 or above if using the standard Research Council scoring system) won’t be funded even if money is available.
- For some calls, interviews may replace or be held in addition to the panel process. This is most common for very large investments or for individual fellowship awards, and usually involves a core group of panel members – some of whom will not be specialists in your field.
- The feedback and decisions of the panel are then usually communicated to the PI. Funders have the option to make a funding offer conditional on changes or additional information. They can also refuse to fund certain elements, especially if they are missing or not fully justified in the justification of resources document.
How long does the assessment process take?
The assessment process can take anywhere from a month (highly unusual but occasionally possible) to 18 months.
Sometimes for open calls like Research Council standard grants, the Council won’t get the reviewers they need to do the assessment and will hold proposals for future panels. For very large programmes with multiple stages it can be even longer.
For calls with open deadlines it’s worth checking when panels are scheduled so you can submit in time for the expert peer review.
If you really want to get to grips with the assessment process, please consider signing up to the relevant peer review colleges and applying to panels when the opportunity arises. This involves a lot of work but it’s the best way to learn what’s needed to make an application successful.