5 Steps to Running a Successful Grant Peer Review

The peer review is best known for the role it plays in the scholarly publishing world. But it is also true that the peer review plays a critical role in the research funding process. The overarching goal of the grant peer review is to guarantee that the grant maker is funding the best research. The grant peer review ensures funded studies and research projects are aligned with the funder’s mission.

Where the Grant Peer Review Fits in the Research Lifecycle

The research lifecycle kicks off with a grant maker issuing a call for proposals. Once applications
are submitted, the grant maker will convene a peer review committee to review, critique and score submitted applications. Funded applications receive grants and project work begins.

Step 1: Staff your review with the right people

The single most important determinant of a peer review committee’s success and credibility is its members. As a research funder, the goal is to attract outstanding scientists for the peer review committee. Individual reviewer qualifications can include:

  • Scientific excellence (as demonstrated by current grant and publication record)
  • Respect in the scientific community
  • Breadth of expertise
  • Fairness and evenhandedness in review
  • Willingness to do the work required

Reviewers need to be able to:

  • Articulate their views succinctly
  • Engage in productive exchanges
  • Actively participate in the discussion of applications other than those specifically assigned to them
  • Demonstrate an ability to work collegially in a group setting.

Even if individual researchers are prone to falling in love with their own theories, the broader process of peer review and institutionalized skepticism are designed to ensure that, eventually, the best ideas prevail.

Chris Mooney

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and Author

Step 2: Strive for Balance

When confirming returning members and recruiting new members, keep in mind the following guidelines
for optimal group composition:

Scientific Expertise.
To represent all the subjects and techniques covered by your committee.

Institutional Representation.
Limit the number of members from any one institution or industry body to 2.

Academic Position.
Strive for a balance of junior and senior faculty. While it is important to appoint junior faculty members to review committees so they may gain experience in the peer review process, it is equally important that senior faculty be appointed to each study group to provide experience and guidance in the peer review process.

Current Funding and Recent Publications.
This is a strong determinant of a reviewer’s involvement in and knowledge of current scientific trends.

Women and Minorities.
Be mindful of diversity and inclusion when assembling research-related committees. Pay special attention to increasing the number of females and under-represented minorities on committees.

Reviewers play a critical role by:

  • Offering expertise as leaders in the field
  • Identifying original and unique research
  • Ensuring applicant compliance and alignment
  • with organization’s mission

…to yield funding of the best research.

Every opportunity to peer review is an opportunity to mentor and teach.

Dr. Sonia Crandall

PhD Wake Forest School of Medicine

Step 3: Stick to the Process

The submitted grant application normally goes through 2 or more rounds of expert evaluation by internal and external reviewers. At each round, the application is scored and discussed by the review committee. The first round of scoring is sometimes referred to as the “pre-review process” – with the aim of winnowing down the list of viable applications that advance to the next round.

The grant score, reviewers’ critiques, and committee discussions play a fundamental role in the acceptance or rejection of the application.

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Step 4: Keep Decisions Efficient

Peer review meetings can happen in person or virtually. Regardless of venue, the general flow remains the same. It’s important to keep the peer review moving and to set time limits per application. A general rule of thumb is to spend no more than 15 minutes on any one application.

Step 5: Return Valuable Results

When returning results to applicants, the peer review committee should have two goals:

  1. Fund proposals with best scientific merit and potential impact and…
  2. Provide valuable feedback to applicants to improve their proposals for future submissions

Example Peer Review Rubric

The scales used for peer review scoring models vary. Some score application on a scale of 1 to 5. Others 1 to 9 or 1 to 10. But regardless of the range used the central goal tends to be same: to determine the likelihood of a project to exert sustained, powerful influence on the topic being funded. A good scoring rubric includes clear definitions and descriptive criteria to enable reviewers to assess applications on a consistent basis.

Tip: Protect Confidentiality and Reduce the Risk of Conflicts of Interest

Have reviewers agree to a Non-Disclosure Agreement and Conflict of Interest document. While modern grants management systems like ProposalCentral automatically flag conflicts based on common institutions, its best practice to have reviewers sign a non-disclosure agreement and conflict of interest agreement. Doing so helps mitigate risk and allows for a more open and free exchange of ideas.

Want to Learn More?

Watch the webinar replay
of “Running a Great Grant Peer Review”.

Watch the Webinar

Sources: This infographic builds on the knowledge shared in the webinar “Running a Great Grant Peer Review” (June 2021) featuring panelists from The American Heart Association, PKD Foundation and Altum.

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