Funding

Funding meetings

1. Roles at the meeting
2. Managing conflicts of interest
3. Assessment criteria
4. Further considerations
5. Funding adjustments
6. Scoring 
7. Ranking
8. Invited resubmissions
9. Communication of decisions
10. Feedback

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 will be 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/European Research Institute/University or pharmaceutical/biotechnology/life sciences company with broad experience of cutting-edge research.

1.1 MRC staff

Head of Theme:

The Head of Theme is the Accounting Officer for the board or panel budget and responsible for delivery of the board or panels’ 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 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 and independence of the proposal. Should expertise be required from another field, guest introducers are invited to contribute.

Introducer one presents a brief synopsis of the proposal, focussing on strengths and weaknesses of the proposal 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 (eg for an MRC fellowship), introducers instead take it in turn to question the applicants. 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 1 and 10, 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 1-10 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 applicant(s), co-applicant(s) or project partners
  • Members work closely with the applicant(s) (eg 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
    • 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, the MRC considers impact to have two distinct meanings:
    1. 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?
    2. Economic and societal impact: how does this proposal fit into the wider societal context? Is likely to have scope to impact on treatment practices; or the wider policy context, or lead to novel technologies or improve the quality of life or economic competitiveness of the UK? 
  • Productivity
    • Does the proposal have a favourable risk/reward balance?

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 5 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:

  • 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 (PDF, 40KB).

5. Funding adjustments

The board or panel may make a lower commitment to an award than requested by the applicant (or ‘prune’) where:

  • The programme of work is not fully justified by peer review, or;
  • Specific resources are not fully justified for this programme of work.

A 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.

6. Scoring 

Following discussion, each proposal is scored from 1-10 by each member using the scoring matrix for board and panel meetings. Scores are submitted anonymously and collated by an electronic system. 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.

7. 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 being assessed at one of the MRC’s four research boards, applications that address either the MRC’s longstanding commitment to New Investigators and/or an identified Board opportunity(ies) will be given special consideration in this process. Context and further information about the board opportunities can be found in the board opportunities overview (PDF, 118KB).

8. 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.

9. 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.

10. Feedback 

Applicants will have received peer review comments prior to the funding meeting.

After the funding meeting, applicants receive a summary of the board or panel’s discussion, prepared by MRC Head Office.