Ask the panel

August 12, 2005

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

Recently I submitted a grant proposal to a research council. It was sent to two referees and I was able to see their comments. One was very complimentary, the other simply ignorant. My proposal has been turned down. My university has told me I cannot challenge this. Is this right? And, if so, why?

Securing research grants is vital for academics - so it is understandable that you are concerned about why yours was turned down.

* Our panellist from Research Councils U K says that your university is correct that complaints that amount to a disagreement with a peer-review decision by a council, or one of its panels, will not be accepted.

"This is because research councils take great care to obtain pertinent scientific advice and endeavour to obtain comments from referees who are well placed to offer informed views," he says.

"They often give applicants the chance to nominate or suggest appropriate referees, and it is also normal to send referees comments (in unattributed form) to applicants so that they have the opportunity to respond. I would hope that you took that opportunity if it was offered to you.

Peer-review panels that make judgments on the relative merits of research proposals are informed by the views of referees and any responses from the applicant."

He adds: "One further bit of advice would be to discuss the matter with the relevant contact at the individual council, who may be able to offer some advice. There may be rare occasions when a complaint is concerned with the manner in which a decision has been made, rather than objections to the merits of the decision. In such instances, councils will be prepared to investigate and the procedures published on individual council websites."

* Our resident academic says: "Even when the reviews are fair it is disappointing not to get a grant after all the hard work that went into the proposal. If negative reviews are unjustified, two issues make failure very hard to bear.

"One is the sneaking suspicion that the person who gave your proposal the thumbs down did so not entirely disingenuously and has a similar application in the pipeline themselves.

"The second is that the submittal of a similar proposal at the next grant round could solicit two entirely different opinions. Despite acknowledging the large chunk of luck involved in being successful, this should also give you a reason to keep trying. Try to resist the temptation to yell at the research council.

"There are so many more proposals than money to fund them, funders rely on the reviews to thin the field. Take on board valid criticism and improve the application. If the research council rules permit, resubmit.

"Otherwise, try to find another funding source and apply there."

She adds: "Nobody thinks peer review is a perfect system, the problem is what to replace it with."

* Our panellist from the Association of University Teachers says: "There is no blanket right to appeal against the decision of research councils but it would be worth checking the rules of the individual council concerned. If there is a right to appeal, then your employer (the university) should facilitate and support you in making an appeal.

"In any case, you should be able to get feedback from the research council on why your proposals were turned down. The AUT would like to see a far more transparent process in such cases with the right to appeal against a decision on a factual basis."

* The University and Colleges Employers' Association panellist agrees that the university is correct to say that you cannot challenge the peer-review decision, except on purely procedural grounds.

He adds: "While there are critics of this system, there are also those who strongly defend it. It is obviously disappointing that your referee was so negative but if the research council to which you applied has offered you the chance to respond to the referee's comments, you should take it."

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