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The benefits and burdens of peer review processes: from idea to award

The cost of developing, writing, reviewing and deciding on research proposals is an under-researched but critical prerequisite to understanding the efficiency of funding decisions. This is increasingly a priority issue, with the UK Prime Minister stating in 2019 his wish to reduce funding red-tape “to ensure brilliant scientists are able to spend as much time as possible creating new ideas, not filling in unnecessary forms.” This commitment has been backed up with the publication of a policy paper by the Government on Reducing bureaucratic burden in research, innovation and higher education, which included a commitment to work “with external advisers to provide additional, independent challenge and to calculate the total costs of bureaucracy”, and the launch of the Tickell Review “to reduce red tape for UK researchers”.  

Despite the evident policy-relevance of understanding the costs and cost-effectiveness of grant application and review processes, there is relatively little evidence and research on the topic. A small number of now dated studies in the UK and Australia have examined the costs of preparing proposals, the cost of peer review, and the administrative cost to funders, and estimated these costs as being about 13% of total funding awarded. This project, funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and in itself awarded after a competitive peer review process, will further develop this limited body of work by estimating the monetised costs (burdens) of the peer review process for a sample of grant schemes across two of UKRI councils: Medical Research Council and Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council. Crucially, this project will balance those estimates against an articulation of the benefits (for all of the various participants) that are derived from the process. 

To deliver on these objectives, four schemes across the MRC and EPSRC will be chosen and broken down into a more detailed series of stages at which burdens and benefits accrue. The project will then go on to survey and interview individuals involved in developing, writing, reviewing, and making decisions on research proposals. The surveys and interviews will capture the benefits and burdens, by source and by stage, of the decision-making and peer review process. Ipsos MORI have been contracted to administer the surveys on our behalf during 2022 and early 2023. 

With the evidence and analysis produced through this project, the project team will go on to develop and disseminate a toolkit designed to allow UKRI, and other research funders, to assess the benefits and burdens of other peer review processes in the future, and will make a set of policy relevant recommendations on "bureaucratic burden in research" whilst maintaining the benefits that are derived from such processes. The toolkit and recommendations will be published in summer 2023. 

For further information contact the project team:

Project members