Other considerations when reviewing
- Unconscious bias
- Career breaks and flexible working
- MRC Remit and multi/interdisciplinary proposals
- Ethical issues
Reviewers must ensure they maintain objectivity in their assessment and should be aware of the potential for unconscious bias and the impact this may have on peer review.
The MRC have put in place various steps to overcome bias; these include:
- Monitoring diversity on our boards and panels
- Providing clear assessment criteria
- Encouraging all board and panel members to attend MRC-led unconscious bias workshops specifically designed to:
- Explore the way in which unconscious biases can impact funding decision making
- Learn to identify the types of bias that impact peer review
- Undertake techniques to help members protect funding decision making from bias
- Discuss the implications of this for the different stakeholders involved in funding
The assessment of MRC proposals frequently involves appraisal of the applicant’s track record. In making this appraisal, reviewers should take into account time spent outside the active research environment, whether through career breaks or flexible working.
In assessing the effects of career breaks or flexible working, panels will note the applicant’s career trajectory and potential at the beginning of a break, relative to the stage of the applicant’s career. In assessing applicants, panels will recognise that the effects on productivity of a career break, or a period of flexible working, may continue beyond the return to work. The following areas may be affected*:
- Presentation and publication record
- Track record of securing funding, including time to obtain preliminary data
- Maintaining networks of research contacts and research collaborations
- Recruitment of staff
- Time required for training
- The ability to take up opportunities in different geographical locations
- The ability to take up courses, sabbaticals, ‘visits’, placements and secondments
Career breaks are defined as a substantive period of time spent outside research. Reasons may include the following*:
- Personal reasons
- Trying out a new career
- Parental leave
- Ill health, injury or disability
- Caring/domestic responsibilities
- Study/training/further education
Flexible working describes any working arrangement where the number of hours worked, or the time that work is undertaken, vary from standard practice and could include the following*:
- Reduction in full time hours
- Long term partial return to work
- Job Sharing
- Compressed working hours
- Term-time only working
- Annualised hours
*Lists are not exhaustive
If the MRC has invited you to review, please respond on the assumption that the proposal falls predominantly within our remit and that discussions with other Research Councils have taken place if needed. Do not be tempted to adjust your comments or score downward because you do not think that the research fits fully within the MRC’s remit. All of the Research Councils encourage research that adds value by linking science across our remits. Research proposals that need to span the distinct remits of different Councils will be handled by one lead Council, with others contributing to the review and funding as needed.
If invited to review multi- and/or inter-disciplinary proposals, you may not be familiar with all aspects of the research. You may have been approached as a reviewer because of your particular expertise in one aspect or because of your experience of cross-disciplinarity. If you only feel confident to comment on particular elements of the proposal, please restrict your comments to these, and tell us what they are in the Declaration of Interests section in Je-S. Reviews will also be sought from experts in all aspects to ensure appropriate coverage.
Cross-disciplinary proposals should clearly articulate the added value of the approach, presenting an explicit view of how they will gain ‘more than the sum of their parts’ from the collaborations. We do not necessarily expect a step-change in state of the art for each individual discipline; the combination of the disciplines may be the novelty. Reviewers should apply a broad perspective to consider this, even if an expert in only one aspect of the proposal. Multi- and inter-disciplinary research may necessitate a researcher moving disciplines and whilst it is important you are convinced that the appropriate logistical support is in place (including training where necessary), you should take care to review the project and not the applicant(s). Reviewers are encouraged to consider more deeply the benefits of a cross-disciplinary approach, the appropriate disciplines to involve, the integration required and how it can be achieved.
While MRC’s role is not to support industrially-led research, MRC strongly encourages academic-industry collaboration and will separately review any collaboration to ensure that MRC support would be appropriate. Please do feel free to comment if you think the project merits MRC support or for example, alternatively should be supported directly by industry or through other means, such as via Innovate UK, but do not modify your overall score as a result.
Medical research raises a number of ethical issues and the MRC’s requirements and expectations relating to research involving humans or animals, or where there are other sensitivities are outlined in the MRC Ethics Series.
Many of the finer points of proposals addressing the issues will involve scrutiny by an independent ethics committee, however we also need to be satisfied that the work is acceptable. Therefore we ask all reviewers to:
- Follow good ethical practice in their role of assessing proposals
- Consider carefully the ethical acceptability of research proposals and where necessary highlight areas the MRC may need to consider
- Assist the MRC in identifying any wider potential implications eg could a piece of non-clinical research involving techniques such as synthetic biology or animal cloning have far-reaching ethical implications?
Our expectations and requirements around research involving humans are outlined in the MRC Ethics Series. Specific guidance and advice is available for work involving children, individuals who lack mental capacity, participants in developing societies, personal information, human tissues and biological samples.
Although most of this work involves independent scrutiny by an independent ethics committee, we also need to be satisfied that the work is acceptable. Many proposals have broad-ranging programmes, but do not include detailed protocols, so it is useful to focus on obvious problem areas and novel issues, including:
- Clinical trials – these are submitted with detailed protocols
- Proposals which may involve potentially novel risks need to take into account public as well as scientific perception
- Proposals where consent cannot readily be given or is not going to be obtained
- Proposals which entail using data or material in ways which the donor may not have envisaged
- Proposals in areas of public concern (eg genetics) where the potential relevance to health may not be obvious.
If you consider that there are particular ethical considerations around a proposal, please raise these in your review so that they may be considered by the board or panel.
We expect all proposals to conform to our guidance ‘Responsibility in the use of animals in bioscience research: Expectations of the major research council and charitable funding bodies.’
Reviewers are asked to consider whether:
- Animals are needed for the proposed research
- The potential benefit justifies any adverse effects on the animals
- The species and model chosen are appropriate
- The experimental design and planned statistical framework chosen are suitable to address the scientific objectives
- The primary outcomes to be assessed and frequency of measurements / interventions is appropriate
- The total number of animals and chosen sample sizes is appropriate in relation to the planned statistical analyses.
- Appropriate plans to minimise experimental bias are in place
This requirement applies whether or not the animals are to be purchased with MRC funds and whether the work is to be undertaken within or outside the UK.
The MRC’s guidance can be found at: Managing risks of research misuse.
Reviewers are asked to consider:
- Are there any ethical, safety or security issues or other potential adverse consequences associated with the proposed research?
- Whether these issues would include any tangible risks meaning that the research could be misused for harmful purposes. Such purposes would include actions which lead to harm to humans, animals or the environment including terrorist misuse;
- If such issues exist, have these been addressed satisfactorily in the proposal?
Where a proposal involves study at the level of institutions or communities, it is important to ensure that ethical issues and potential impact from the group or institutional perspective have been properly addressed.
If you have any queries about the acceptability of a proposal which are not covered in the MRC guidance, please contact the relevant board or panel team via email: firstname.lastname@example.org or via telephone: +44 (0) 1793 416248.