AHRC Study Tour 2012 – Peer Review and Fellowships

This is the third part of a series on the AHRC 2012 Study Tour.

Dr Sue Carver gave a short overview and update on the AHRC’s peer review process. A bit of background first: The AHRC Peer Review College (PRC) was established in 2004 with 460 members, and now has over 1,300 across five different groupings: academic, knowledge exchange, international, strategic, and technical. Peer reviewers from these groupings are sometimes used for different elements of a single application or for applications to different calls, for example, where a bid includes a technical appendix. The AHRC has a service level agreement of sorts with each reviewer to ensure that they get no more than 8 proposals per year to review.

Membership of the PRC is valuable both for institutions (used in internal peer review processes) and individuals (esteem and improving knowledge of writing bids). There is clearly a high degree of awareness among many research-active staff: a recent AHRC call for membership of the PRC drew in over 300 applications for membership, despite the fact that the call was targeted towards particular themes and research areas.

In terms of the process for funding applications at AHRC, the PRC is a central part of the picture:

  • Application submitted via Je-S
  • Checked in AHRC for eligibility
  • 3 peer reviewers are selected from PRC, plus 1 technical reviewer where necessary
  • Reviews are completed, returned and checked for quality
  • Applications are sifted in AHRC: if not 2 fundable grades then it is rejected
  • Applicant notified and given opportunity to respond to reviews
  • Application, reviews and PI response are forwarded to panel
  • Panel meets and makes decisions on academic ranking of applications
  • AHRC funds as far as they can down this list until funding runs out

Four key points were made in the update:

  1. A new grading scale (from 1-6) came into use from 1st December 2011. This means that grading is now harmonised across all research councils;
  2. From 1st April 2012, resubmission to AHRC will be by invitation only. Again this brings AHRC into line with other research councils, such as the ESRC. This policy is also an important part of their demand management strategy;
  3. In response to a question on the place impact in peer review, we were told that this comes in as a secondary criterion during ranking of proposals. Where two proposals are equivalent in scientific excellence then the one with the higher quality Pathways to Impact statement will be ranked higher;
  4. Where the AHRC has invited applications through highlight notices, a decision will be taken internally in AHRC as to whether to fund additional highlighted projects which may be ranked lower in the scale.

Katherine Warren, AHRC’s Strategy and Development Manager, focused on the recent major changes to the Fellowships scheme.

The most significant change is that AHRC is moving away from funding Fellowships which support “completion” to supporting visionary individuals with the potential to set research agendas. Often the research supported will be at an earlier stage of development. In addition:

  • Fellowships will adhere to the “longer and larger” maxim: 6 months minimum, 18 months maximum (or 24 months maximum for the early career route);
  • There will be fewer and more prestigious awards. Katherine made the point that the AHRC will “only fund the best”. They see this as one way to increase impact from the awards they make;
  • Fellowships will be used to sustain undersupported subject areas and to bolster AHRC’s strategic priorities.

In the early career fellowships route, part of the focus will be on helping the fellow to develop their people management skills. In this regard it will be more like the ESRC’s Future Research Leaders scheme. But the HEI must also be willing to demonstrate its support of the potential candidate: there must be an existing contract in place and further commitment (such as sabbaticals, internal funding, and training for leadership) should be evidenced in the Head of Department’s supporting statement.

Katherine emphasised the importance of internal selection of candidates including linkage and alignment of a candidate’s programme of research to institutional research strategies and aims. The steer was very much to get institutions thinking: “who are our top few people?”. However, the AHRC have stopped short of putting limits on numbers of applications though, much like the ESRC’s position on Future Research Leaders, they have indicated that they will keep this policy under review.

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