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How do you make research funding transparent and fair?

Published: 26 March 2019

Funding organisations are committed to allocating public or private funds for research in a fair and transparent way.  To do this, research applications go through a number of decision-making processes that centre on vigorous reviewing of the application.  For example, applications may be initially subjected to internal triage by funding organisation staff, external peer review from experts in the field and review from members of funding committees. 

Most researchers will be well acquainted with this type of peer review system, and will be aware of the biases (e.g. bias towards applicants of a specific age, gender or career stage) and burden (e.g. high time and cost burdens for applicants, reviewers and funding organisations) that go hand in hand with this system.  However, as a researcher new to the field of Research on Research (RoR; study of research practices with the aim of investigating evidence-based improvements), I was unaware of the number of innovative and alternative approaches to decision-making for grant fund allocation that are currently being investigated to reduce these biases and burden, and enhance decision-making processes. For example, virtual meetings that capitalise on developments in technology can help to reduce costs of face-to-face meetings; or random allocation or lottery systems that can help to distribute funds fairly across applications of equal merit; or just simplifying the application process to help reduce burden along the research funding pathway. That is not to say that these methods are better than more traditional peer review processes or that they do not themselves have challenges or issues associated with them. However, as yet it is not clear what approaches to decision-making work best; what alternatives, if any, have been considered by health research funders; in which contexts these approaches may be preferred or work best; and whether they have been evaluated for efficiency, reproducibility and generalisability.

The RoR team at the NIHR are building on previous work carried out that investigated external written peer review within the NIHR.  We are interested in exploring decision-making practices from a broader perspective that is inclusive of other funders' experiences of peer review.  We would like to identify and explore the different approaches to grant decision-making that have been used, are being used or could be used by national and international health research funders.  To this end, we recently launched an international survey (ethics id: 46851) to find out more about the decision-making processes that funders of health and health-related research use to allocate grant funds.  This survey will help us build a better understanding of decision-making processes that reduce bias and burden for applicants, reviewers and funding organisations, uncovering the potential of alternative approaches to decision-making.

Katie Meadmore's blog was originally published on the AMRC website.


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