In a nutshell, peer review is the process where independent experts consider the importance, scientific potential and cost effectiveness of research proposals. Their contributions help determine who gets funding. This decision can have a big impact on advancing areas of scientific research as well as the career progression of the individuals taking part.
With our colleagues across UKRI, Medical Research Council (MRC) is working to understand trends in peer review. With Peer Review Week 2021, we want to encourage engagement from everyone involved to ensure a more diverse, equitable and inclusive process.
An impressive collective effort
I think it’s important to remember that this effort is carried out by a multitude of different stakeholders from across the peer review ecosystem. This includes not only expert assessors and board and panel members, who provide written reviews and attend funding meetings. But also the applicants, the internal administrative staff and the research organisations and offices.
It is a necessary and important process that allows us to ensure that we make the right, high-quality and fair funding decisions. But we know there are challenges that add to the effort of conducting peer review and securing experts from diverse groups. So here are some of the steps we’re taking to address them.
Reaching out to new experts
We’re increasingly reaching out to new experts, which we hope will help us recruit more individuals from diverse backgrounds.
We sent out 23,848 invitations to review applications in 2019 to 2020 with a response rate of only 31.1%. Of those sent, 25% went to experts who identify as female. This proportion has increased slightly over the past five years but so has the percentage of individuals who we don’t have diversity information for. We also don’t receive responses from many experts when we invite them to review for the first time, so we don’t know how these individuals identify.
We really need this data in order to be able to sufficiently monitor our progress, so this is something we want to work with our communities to improve.
Review requests made by gender
|Year||Total requests: male||Total requests: female||Total requests: unknown or undisclosed|
|2019 to 2020||47%||25%||28%|
|2018 to 2019||48%||26%||26%|
|2017 to 2018||51%||25%||25%|
|2016 to 2017||53%||23%||24%|
|2015 to 2016||56%||22%||20%|
Managing COVID-19 disruption
We’re grateful to our experts and staff who have put in incredible efforts to help us peer review a significantly increased volume of grant applications over the past 18 months.
All stakeholders have been affected by COVID-19, and the impact on research productivity, progress and careers will continue to be felt years after the pandemic. We’re handling this in our peer review process by:
- asking applicants to let us know how they have personally been impacted by the pandemic
- asking expert assessors, board and panel members to take any disruption into account when assessing proposals.
Recruiting new MRC Board and Panel Members
Our research boards and panels play an important role in MRC peer review and advising which projects to fund. Being on our panels can also give you a valuable insight into how funding decisions are made.
We want to encourage a diverse range of people to apply to be members. So we’ve taken steps, with more initiatives currently in the pipeline, to contribute towards ensuring a more inclusive process, including:
- updating application forms to offer more accessible formats and encouraging declaration of diversity monitoring information, which is monitored to address any issues
- using positive action to target particular groups (women and ethnic minority researchers and researchers with disabilities or long-term conditions) within advertising and broadening our advertising streams
- considering geographical, gender and ethnicity balance when shortlisting new members.
Creating a simpler and better funding service
The UKRI Simpler and Better Funding programme is supporting equality, diversity and inclusion by helping to build a research and innovation system that works for everyone.
The programme was designed to review and improve systems that affect all stakeholders in the peer review process. Researchers, innovators, research offices, expert assessors, board and panel members and our own internal administration, we need your views!
Rigorous testing, live demos, workshops and question and answer sessions are helping the new funding service evolve. UKRI are listening, learning and will create an improved product that will deliver peer review in a more inclusive way.
How you can make a difference
- update your diversity information on the Je-S system
- contribute to the Simpler and Better funding programme
- learn more about MRC’s response to the pandemic
- offer your expertise by accepting an invitation to peer review. Learn more about the MRC peer review process
- contact us if you have ideas for how we can further improve peer review: firstname.lastname@example.org
Top image: Credit: Getty