Common principles of assessment apply to all research funding, whether it is supported through research programmes or discovery science (responsive mode). All proposals are assessed by peer review, but processes may vary to suit the needs of the scheme.
For discovery science (responsive mode) proposals, the only assessment criterion is excellence. In research programmes additional criteria such as fit to NERC priorities also apply. An explanation of how the NERC assessment criteria will be applied can be found in each scheme's guidance on the handbook, guidance and forms page.
The peer review process generally consists of two stages. The NERC conflict of interest policy applies to both stages of the process. For small investments or outline proposals assessment is likely to be by a panel only.
1. Expert Review
Internationally-recognised experts considered to have expertise relevant to the proposal are invited by NERC to undertake proposal reviews. For responsive mode proposals the majority of experts approached are members of the NERC Peer Review College. Applicants have the opportunity to nominate reviewers, and where possible some of these are also approached to comment. Proposers are given an opportunity to respond to comments provided by reviewers.
NERC has set minimum and optimal levels of peer review as acceptable for particular research funding schemes. The number of reviews used in decision-making should only be above or below these levels in exceptional circumstances.
|Proposal type||Minimum number of reviews per proposal||Optimal number of reviews per proposal|
|Standard Grant / Standard New Investigator Grant||3||4|
|Independent Research Fellowship||3||4|
|Research Programme||Defined by call according to proposal complexity||Defined by call according to proposal complexity|
2. Moderating Panel
Discovery science (responsive mode) moderating panels are formed from the Peer Review College. Half of the membership of any panel regularly attend as 'Core Panel Members' and there is an identified Chair. Other members are selected from the College according to the particular proposals being considered. For schemes where multiple panels meet (ie standard grants and fellowships), business is divided between panel portfolios that consider particular aspects of environmental science.
Research programme moderating panels are formed from UK and international academic experts and users of the research programme outputs. This will include some members of the Peer Review College.
The moderating panel considers the proposal, the reviewer comments and the proposer's responses to those comments. Panel members may introduce information to the discussion that has not previously been raised by the reviewers, only if they identify a serious issue. With reference to this information the moderating panel is responsible for:
- In the case of standard grants, providing pre-scores for excellence to allow the business of the panel to be managed
- Providing a final grading and feedback comments on the proposal in a form that will be made available to the proposer and the submitting research organisation
- Prioritisation of proposals and providing funding recommendations
- Examining the resources requested for fundable proposals to ensure they are justified and recommending any budget adjustments necessary
- Identifying adventurous proposals and suitable break-points in high-risk grants to allow risk assessment
The membership and outcomes of moderating panels are published on the NERC website.
To mitigate against unconscious bias we have implemented the following changes to our panel meeting processes:
- Our Discovery Science standard and large grant moderating panel meetings are held over two days, allowing the panel longer to discuss all the proposals and also allowing more time for the final ranking.
- We allocate readers (usually 2) to each proposal. The introduction of readers means that for every proposal at least 4 panel members have read the proposal, the associated reviewers comments and the principal investigator (PI) response in detail.
- The process around the discussion and assessment of each individual proposal has been changed. Each of the introducers (and readers) are asked to give their comments on the proposal first. Only once everyone has given their comments do we then move onto scores.
- The scoring criteria used by the panel is published in advance of the meeting. The panel Chair stresses the importance of using these at the start of the meeting and also re-emphasises this throughout the meeting referring the panel back to the criteria during discussions.
- We try to ensure that there are no conflicts of interest for the first proposal we discuss to help with benchmarking.
- We try to ensure that the introducers for the first few proposals discussed are experienced panel members. This helps with benchmarking and also gives new panel members the opportunity to see how the process works before having to contribute.
Sandpits: Where NERC needs to encourage multidisciplinary research in an area where novel and truly adventurous research is required or for new directions in thinking where new collaborations need to be facilitated, a sandpit may be held. A sandpit is an intensive and interactive event where participants get together for 3-5 days. The event culminates in the presentation of proposals, with a funding decision being made using the process of real time peer review.