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How to nudge draft bid reviewers to deliver meaningful responses

Have you ever asked a colleague for feedback on a draft grant proposal and been told: “Looks fine but it’s not really my area.” Not terribly helpful, is it? 

Here, I’ll detail how you can raise your chances of a more fruitful appraisal. And in the next Research Fortnight, I’ll outline tips on giving good feedback.

Ask for early feedback 

Get a ‘sense check’ from a research development manager or senior academic colleague familiar with the scheme. Ask whether the idea is within scope, is a good fit, has a realistic chance of success, and whether applying is the best use of your time. 

There is no shame in submitting a competitive but ultimately unsuccessful application. The real waste in the research funding system is generated by applications that are uncompetitive or targeted at the wrong scheme. Your time is valuable, so get an early check.

Identify reviewers early

Approach colleagues who can help you as soon as you pass step one. Seek feedback from colleagues with similar characteristics to the reviewers. Most funders publish details of their selection process on the call web page. Ideally, find someone who has experience with the funder. If not, ask someone who’s served as a panel member for another funder and is used to reviewing grant applications. 

Find a reviewer who is familiar with your research area to represent the ‘expert’ peer reviewer. You should also find another reviewer who works in a different discipline within the funder/panel remit to represent the perspective of a funding panel member. Colleagues are likely to be busy, but some will be in research leadership roles, so it’s literally their job to help you. 

Set a deadline by which you will send a full draft and ensure it gives you lots of time to redraft based on their feedback before the scheme deadline. Remind them as the date gets closer and send a full draft by the date you promised.

Work on the official form

Always enter your draft onto the online system and print off a PDF to send for feedback. There’s something about reviewing an application in its natural habitat—in the same form that panel members will see it—that prompts better feedback. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to see how the sections work together, or maybe it’s because it’s more official, more real.

Share the criteria with reviewers

Funding calls don’t exist in a vacuum. There will be aims and objectives of the scheme, and there will be assessment criteria. You must share these with your reviewers. It matters whether it’s a fellowship or a project grant, and what importance the funders place on impact and knowledge exchange. Reviewers need to know the broader context to give you useful feedback.

Ask specific questions

Don’t ask reviewers what they think; ask them how it could be improved. Some people are held back by misplaced politeness, by concerns about their suitability to comment on work outside their own fields, by a lack of faith in their own instincts. You can prompt your reviewers with specific questions to ensure better feedback and show that you’re open to what they have to say, and to reworking the application in response.

With the expert in your discipline, a good question to ask might be about any weaknesses that concern you. You might also ask where they think the draft is vulnerable to a hostile reviewer—if they wanted to sink the bid, how would they do it? 

A more generalist reviewer may need help to overcome the fact that it’s not their area. But that’s precisely why you’ve asked them. Did they understand your proposal, the overall shape of the project and why it matters? Is the novelty obvious? What did they find puzzling? 

If some element isn’t clear, perhaps they lack the background, but more likely it’s because…well, it isn’t clear. Ask them not to self-censor. It’s your job to pick out what you should respond to and change.

Ask the big question

You can ask everybody this, my favourite review question: imagine we’re six months in the future and the application was unsuccessful—why? This is a really good way of flushing out the most serious weaknesses you may be reluctant to admit.

You are not your application

Keep a clear distinction between you and your ideas on the one hand, and the application on the other. You are not inviting judgement on your value as a researcher. Understanding this puts you in a better, less-defensive position to receive feedback. 

Just as importantly, it gives the reviewer permission to be critical, because in constructively criticising the draft, they’re not criticising you. 

Adam Golberg is research development manager (charities) at the University of Nottingham

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com