Guest blog

Four takes on observing the ARUK grant review board – Take Two by Dr Hannah Scott

This is the second of four guest blogs from Early Career Researchers who observed the recent ARUK Grant Review Board – Take Two by Hannah Scott 

What goes on behind closed doors: insight into an ARUK Grant Review Board meeting

“Two more till coffee!”

Similar exclamations were heard more than once during the ARUK Grant Review Board meeting. Over two consecutive days the Grant Review Board members, consisting of established researchers from across the UK, were tasked with assessing over 60 grant applications – hence the need for caffeinated beverages. Along with a handful of other postdocs, I had the opportunity to observe the first day of this meeting, on 12th June 2018, which covered Research Fellowships, Senior Research Fellowships and Pilot Projects.

The process works like this. Every application is read in-depth by two Board members who summarise it to the Board, discuss it with the other Board members and score it on a scale of 1 to 5. Proposals with scores up to 2.5 are shortlisted for possible funding. Having to cover around 30 applications in one afternoon, interrupted only by a short coffee break half way through, required a fairly fast turnaround – 10-15 minutes per fellowship application and around 6 minutes per pilot project application. Though this varied greatly. Some Board members felt they had a lot to convey about a particular project (either good or bad) while others were quick to point out what was convincing and what wasn’t. A few proposals elicited more heated, though light-hearted, exchanges, in particular when the two Board members were not in agreement.

What brought everyone together though, was their keen interest in supporting early/mid-career applicants. Career development was a key consideration for the Board members; they wanted to support good researchers with potential and ambition. The Grant Review Board also wanted to make sure that career progression of the potential fellow was well supported by the relevant host institution, through practical support and commitment to provide future employment. The Letter of Support from the host university, which many may think of as a mere formality, was actually considered an integral part of the application. A couple of examples were pointed out where the host university had only provided a few generic sentences, rather than detailing the fit between the applicant and the host institution. It’s a Letter of Support after all, and if the potential host university does not appear to be enthusiastic about the applicant, why should the funding organisation be?

What happens if novel research shows that a key component of a proposed fellowship project is now controversial or unfeasible? Should a good applicant with a great proposal lose out on a potentially career-defining opportunity due to novel research that wasn’t available at the time of writing the proposal? On the other hand, what is the point in supporting a project that won’t lead to anything? It was interesting to see the discussion amongst the Board members that evolved from this question. In fact, there was a simple solution to the problem. The shortlisted fellowship applicants would be interviewed the following week and this would be an opportunity to clarify key questions on the proposal, including any changes to the experimental plan or fall-back options based on newly published research. Contrary to how I imagined it, the fellowship interview may include some go/no-go questions and may therefore be critical for funding success!

Recently, ARUK (and other funders) removed the age and time-past-PhD eligibility criteria for their fellowship schemes. Instead, experience and professional development are key. It was nice to see that this was actually implemented. The Board pointed out that some fellowship applicants in this round benefitted from the change in eligibility and their applications were viewed favourably, focussing instead on their experience, trajectory and vision for the future. It was also good to see how career breaks, be it due to maternity leave (other parental leave did not come up) or sick leave, were clearly taken into consideration when assessing an applicant’s background. This is critical in a field where gaps in the publication history can have a huge impact on a researcher’s career. Even with pilot projects, career development was kept in mind, so a proposal that was developed as a “pathway to fellowship” and was to support a researcher’s return from maternity leave was judged very positively.

The Grant Review Board members clearly have to invest considerable time and work as part of the review process, beyond the two days of the meeting. The short time spent on each application might mean that not everything can be addressed in as detailed a manner as it might otherwise be. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to see how diligently the panel discussed every application, being forthcoming with honest feedback but aiming to give every applicant the best chance.

I would like to thank the ARUK for the opportunity to attend the Grant Review Board meeting on 12th June 2018 in Birmingham. You’d never think it but spending a Tuesday afternoon in a stuffy window-less conference room has made me more motivated than ever to submit my own application!

Top tips for fellowship applications (gathered from the meeting):

  • Your publication record is hugely important in relation to career stage and type of fellowship.
  • Have a logical hypothesis and make sure the experiments support this hypothesis. If you come from a different area of research, do your background reading!
  • A well written proposal will make you stand out and be much more convincing. Make sure to include detailed methods, discussions of technical limitations and back-up plans.
  • Have the right combination of own expertise and expertise of host lab/collaborators. Especially for Senior Research Fellowships it is expected that the applicant already has the bulk of the required expertise.
  • Demonstrate how the fellowship will support your career progression. Can a career be built on the proposed research, is it separate from supervisors’ and collaborators’ work, what are your career plans and ambitions?
  • The interview can make or break your success of gaining the fellowship. Know your project inside out, be aware of recent literature and be prepared to discuss the limitations of your experimental design.


Author

Dr Hannah Scott in the UK Dementia Research Institute at Cardiff University. Hannah is Investigating the effects of Alzheimer’s disease risk variants in non-coding regions of the genome on microglial cells. In addition to science Hannah loves music and her fascination with the brain drives a passion for her work.

 


 

Thank you to Alzheimer’s Research UK for providing the opportunity. To find out more about potential funding from ARUK visit their website.

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