Portfolio Manager Perspectives

The information provided here is correct at time of publishing (January 2019).

As EPSRC portfolio managers, we each oversee a different community within the Engineering theme and, although the research areas may differ, the questions we receive are often the same. We thought it would be beneficial to share what we have learned through managing the peer review process and convening panels, and we hope you find this a useful addition to what is already available on the EPSRC website. If you have any questions or topics you would like to see discussed further, please email EngineeringPeerReview@epsrc.ukri.org.

There are a number of things to consider when beginning to write a proposal. The first port of call is always the EPSRC funding guide, which contains all the important information on what should and shouldn’t be included in your proposal, writing tips, and the documentation requirements in terms of length and format.

If you still have questions or need clarification, ask the research office at your university or an EPSRC contact

On this page

Before Submission

Getting Started: General Advice

Standard mode proposals and New Investigator Awards go through a two-part assessment process of (1) expert peer review, and (2) generalist panel, which can be composed of both academic and industrial members. The panel uses the expert peer review reports to moderate across all proposals and create a rank order list. Your proposal must balance the necessity of showing the novelty of the technical aspects while also being clear to a non-expert audience.

To help you do this, consider the following:

  • Look at the reviewer prompts and what the reviewers are asked to comment on. Does your proposal answer these questions? Have you left any gaping holes?
  • You need to convince the experts in your own research field about the value of your project. Panels will comment on this; for example, “The reviews all seemed very positive, but there was no real sense of excitement”. Consider what excites you about your research and convey this to both audiences. Convince your peers!
  • Addressing the basics may seem obvious, but ensure that your proposal contains sufficient details for experts and non-experts alike.
  • Although a panel assesses applications on the basis of reviewer reports, try to make your proposal helpful for those who may not be experts in your precise area. Is your title and summary meaningful and accessible?
  • Always remember the basics:   
    • WHAT are you planning to do?
    • HOW are you planning to do it?
    • WHY is this important?

Well-written proposals:

  • Take the assessment criteria into account
  • Demonstrate the capability of the applicant(s)
  • Show novelty and added value
  • Are clear about the ideas, methodology and work plan; they are not woolly or cluttered with technical jargon
  • Pitch an appropriate and realistic degree of ambition
  • Don’t leave questions unanswered

Remember the Case for Support is your opportunity to convince your peers of why your proposed research should be funded. Make sure you use it well!

Provide a convincing case for the originality of your proposal and describe your objectives clearly and succinctly. Proposals are not rejected just because others are doing similar work. But if you don't describe the novelty of your approach and the likelihood of success when compared with others, the value of your proposal may be questioned.

Reviewers often comment that a proposal is unclear about the methodology to be applied, or on the degree of ambition that a proposal has. It's best not to leave it to your peers to ask the questions. Show that you have thought the proposal through and explain how it will succeed. Potential applications might be obvious to you, but tell reviewers and panel members what they are so they are not left in doubt.

Have you thought about:

  • What it would be like to review your proposal?
  • Having experienced colleagues review your proposal?
  • Looking at successful proposals at your institution (this may help you with structure)?
  • Whether the panel will want to read your proposal (is the summary well-written and accessible to a non-expert audience)?

Think about both the content and structure of your proposal. For example, is it a wall of poorly-structured or closely-spaced paragraphs? Make sure it is easy for reviewers to read.

Summary

The proposal summary will be posted on Grants on the Web and Gateway to Research if your project is successful. This is read by a wide range of people, so please ensure that it is written for a general, not technical, audience. To this end, please do not simply cut and paste from elsewhere on your proposal.

Je-S

Portfolio managers are unable to access Je-S and cannot provide assistance with this system. If you have any problems while working on your proposal, please contact your research office or the Je-S helpdesk at 01793 44 4164.

Documents uploaded as “Other” are not seen by peer review. Your research office can also provide general help when uploading your proposal to the Je-S system.

A final thought when writing your proposal:

“There is no grantsmanship that will turn a bad idea into a good one, but there are many ways to disguise a good one.”

William Raub, Past Deputy Director, NIH

Case for Support

Typically, each proposal is allowed an eight-page Case for Support which should contain the Track Record and the Description of the Research.

Track record

  • Two pages maximum – even when there are multiple applicants.
  • In such cases, the summary could usefully highlight previous co-working or the “fit” of research teams.
  • Make it relevant to the proposal – show peer review why you are the right people in the right place to do this work.

Description of the Research

You may want to squeeze in as much information as you can, but don’t present reviewers with a wall of tightly-packed text: it’s hard to read! Think carefully about what you need to include to make the case as to why your research should be funded.

Pathways to Impact

Please don’t underestimate the importance of this document; begin thinking about it when you begin writing the application - don’t write it last. 

  • Consider your Pathways to Maximum Impact: Consider the range of impact types – academic, industry, societal, political and identify which areas you can have a realistic impact on. You do not need to list everything; it’s okay for fundamental work to only impact academia. Don’t oversell the impact; this suggests you haven’t thought hard about it.
  • Remember the document is about pathways, not just the impact: Don’t just list impacts, but give a detailed explanation of how you will achieve each impact; it’s also about how you will generate impact above the norm.
  • Make sure the document is project specific: Aim to go beyond the established or generic approaches. Be creative! Provided that the resources are justified, you can ask for funding for outreach, social media, and engagement.
  • Get feedback: Ask to read colleagues successful Pathways to Impact for inspiration and ask them to read yours for critical assessment.

Please remember this is not a box-ticking exercise! Additional guidance is available in the Impact Guidance.

Justification of Resources

The resources requested should be adequate, realistic and appropriate for the research and be clearly and concisely justified. Two sides of A4 are allowed for the Justification of Resources, but don’t just repeat what’s on your proposal form – explain and justify everything. Otherwise, you run the risk of delay due to proposals being returned for further clarification or resources being cut at authorisation stage. And please do check that the resources match on the Je-S form and the Justification of Resources document.

Reviewers comment both ways: a project can be considered over or under resourced. They will mention if the project is overly ambitious for the funding requested, or if you are massively overestimating what you need to deliver the project.

Remember:

  • Make it easy for the reviewers by using a simple format and approaching the Justification of Resources in a direct way.
  • Say what resources you want and why they are necessary.
  • Don’t leave holes and lay yourself open to questioning from the reviewers.

Make sure you’ve read the guidance document.

Project Partners

In standard mode, having a project partner is not a requirement. However, you should consider whether your peers would consider it appropriate (or even expected) for a collaboration of some sort to be a part of your proposed research.

  • A project partner should add tangible value to the proposal, either directly or indirectly.
  • Formal project partners are asked to write a statement of support to accompany your proposal. A good statement of support can help by showing that the collaboration is genuine, and by explaining why the project partner supports the project and what they will get out of it. Statements should be relevant to the project, written by project partners when the proposal is being prepared, and dated within six months of the proposal submission date.
  • Standard letters declaring general support are often criticised by reviewers. Likewise, a generic letter that is more or less the same for all project partners on a proposal will often be considered negatively by reviewers and panel members.
  • Sometimes a collaborating organisation cannot or chooses not to be a formal project partner on a proposal. For example, this may be another department within your university, an equipment supplier offering discounts, or where organisational policy dictates how collaborations take place.
  • In exceptional circumstances, EPSRC will accept letters of support from organisations that are not listed as formal project partners. Up to 3 of these letters of support are allowed as attachments, but they can be of any length. However, these letters must demonstrate real, tangible value to the proposed research. If not, the proposal will be returned and you will be asked to remove them. Again, a multitude of standard letters declaring general support tend to go down badly with reviewers: consider the quality not the quantity of letters.
  • Please do not put £0 or £1 for in-kind support; have your project partner estimate a (realistic) value for what they are providing.

Additional guidance can be found on the project partners letter of support page.

Schemes

Each EPSRC scheme has a different purpose and you shouldn’t use a one-size-fits-all approach when applying.  A great place to start is with this flowchart to determine the type of funding to apply for.

Reviewer forms and guidance may also vary from scheme to scheme and it is worth checking that you have reviewed the correct one for the scheme you are applying to.

For specific New Investigator Award guidance, please see the EPSRC New Investigator Award page.

For specific Fellowship guidance, please see the Fellowship Application Guide.

Nominated Reviewers

You have the opportunity to nominate three applicant reviewers. These should be researchers or industrialists who you feel can provide a fair assessment of your proposal. They should not be people with whom you have a conflict of interest or have mentioned within the proposal; please do not suggest people you have worked with or published with in the past.

Remember:

  • Do NOT ask potential reviewers if they will provide a review for you.
  • While we aim to have one applicant nominated reviewer for each proposal, this cannot be guaranteed.
  • International nominated reviewers are fine to include, as are reviewers from industry.

Experiencing the peer review assessment process from both sides—as an applicant and a reviewer or panel member—can help you better understand the evaluation process and the role of EPSRC in facilitating it.

During Peer Review

Writing a review

The peer review process can only work if researchers are willing to provide reviews of their colleagues’ work, and carrying out a review can help your future proposals by showing you what reviewers are looking for. Please sign up for Je-S and fill in your expertise and keywords to allow us to find you.

A few things to keep in mind when writing a review:

  • Please accept or decline the invitation: We understand that you may be busy, on leave, or just don’t feel that a proposal is within your expertise. It is absolutely fine to decline, but please let us know so that we can find another reviewer (or, even better, please nominate someone who you think could potentially complete a review).
  • Justify your scores: This includes high scores as well as low.  Please make it clear for both the PI and the panel what you found particularly innovative or problematic for each section of the reviewer form.
  • Do unto others: Please consider what you would want to see if it were you receiving a review. What comments will help the PI write a better proposal next time?
  • Flag up conflicts: If you are concerned you might have any conflicts of interest with a proposal you have been asked to read as a reviewer or panel member, please contact us as soon as possible.

More guidance about writing a review can be found on the reviewing proposals page.

Responding to reviews

The PI response is your last chance to make your case.  Please take this opportunity to politely and respectfully answer all questions and criticisms.

  • Answer all questions: Do not cherry pick just the parts you want to answer. Show that you have taken the comments on board, even if you do not agree with them.  
  • Back up comments with facts: Demonstrate that to the panel why they should have confidence in your ability to carry out the proposal by using facts, not just your opinions.
  • Avoid these pitfalls: “Trust me, I know what I am doing” is not a good response. Nor is “I’ve been doing this 10/20/30 years”. Likewise, do not:
    • Criticise the reviewer or ignore criticisms.
    • Counter the negative comments from one reviewer with positive comments from another.
    • Repeat all the good feedback; you only have two pages to answer questions and criticisms, so ensure you use them wisely.
    • Repeat parts of your proposal; if reviewers have raised questions that you feel are already answered, then it is likely that something was not clear. Please try to rephrase as appropriate.
    • Try to guess who the reviewer is. In our experience, no one has ever guessed correctly!
  • Have someone read your response for tone: Before you submit your PI response, it is useful to have someone check it over to make sure you are striking the right tone with the reader. After all, you do not want the panel to describe your PI response as angry, arrogant, dismissive, or petty. The reviewers do not see your response; it is only the panel who will use it as part of their evaluation.

The panel process

Although panel members are experts in their given fields, they are asked to be generalists when assessing proposals. This is due to the sheer number of research areas that are viewed by the Engineering prioritisation panel; the Manufacturing the Future and Energy themes send proposals to the Engineering panel as well.

Panel members can be viewed as moderators who use the reviewer reports and PI response to produce a prioritised rank order list. By having an overview of all reviewer comments for a proposal, panel members are able to better evaluate whether the reviews are justified.  Panel members do NOT re-review the proposals, but instead use the reviews and PI response as the basis of their discussion and ranking.

There are a number of lists at a standard prioritisation panel, and these are divided by scheme (e.g. fellowship, standard mode, New Investigator Award) and theme (Engineering, Manufacturing the Future). Each list is separate for ranking purposes, but lists are tensioned against one another to ensure that the quality level (the primary criterion) is comparable across all lists.

Please keep in mind that proposals are not separated by research area. Rather, all proposals for a given theme and scheme are assessed against each other. For example, this means that all standard mode proposals within the Engineering remit are assessed against each other.

There are common issues that panels flag up:

  • Unclear methodology: Reviewers have highlighted that it has not come across what the applicant actually intends to do or how they are going to do it.
  • PI response: A PI response that comes across as angry, aggressive, or dismissive of the reviewer comments, is considered unconvincing.  Please see Responding to Reviews for suggestions.
  • Positive reviews are not justified: Ensure that a proposal is clear about the benefits the project offers: a positive review that does not give many details about why the project is considered high quality can be given less credence than an unsupportive review that clearly spells out the concerns the reviewer has with it. The reverse of this is also the case; if an unsupportive review has not justified a low score or negative comments, panel members have the discretion to disregard it. 

Fellowship rankings are used to determine which applicants are invited to interview for a Fellowship. The head of each theme has his or her own budget to spend on funding New Investigator Awards and standard mode projects. There is not a pre-allocated pot of money set aside for each scheme, but rather the head of theme makes the decision about how far down the list to fund, or whether to fund at all if the quality of the projects has not been assessed as sufficiently high enough.  

In very rare circumstances, the panel may recommend that a proposal be resubmitted if a minor change will make it more competitive at a future panel. The head of theme has final say about whether a proposal is invited back, but again, this is only if the panel has initially recommended it.

Feedback is only provided if the panel has flagged up something specifically, or if the Pathway to Impact needs to be revised.  As a reminder, the panel uses the reviews and PI response to make their ranking decision. 

EPSRC Peer Review College

The best way to gain an understanding of the peer review process is from the inside. Please consider applying to join the Associate Peer Review College

After Peer Review

You didn’t get funded. Now what?

You have spent a lot of time, energy, and effort writing a proposal. The reviews were encouraging. And you still didn’t get funded.

It’s very easy for us to say “Don’t take it personally”, but please keep in mind that, on average, success rates for standard mode panels are 20-30%. It is a highly competitive process that, in the case of Engineering, can see the ranking of 30-40 standard mode proposals across over 20 different research areas. To ensure we are spending taxpayers’ money most effectively, quality was adopted as the primary criterion and those proposals at the top of the list are considered those the panel assessed to be of the highest quality.  It is unfortunate, but we cannot fund every proposal.

We are unable to provide specific panel feedback, but panel members are not re-reviewing your proposal: they are using the reviewers’ comments to make their assessment. These comments should be used to help you in writing future proposals. Likewise, assess your PI response to ensure you are taking advantage of this opportunity to address all reviewer questions or concerns.

You can also speak to members of your institution who have been successfully funded, or those who regularly provide reviews or sit on panels. They may be able to offer additional suggestions.

You can apply to join the college yourself to see the peer review process from the inside.

When you are ready to apply again, check out the resubmission policy to make sure that your proposal would not be considered a resubmission.

If you have any questions about future proposals, please contact the research office at your institution or the portfolio manager who looks after your research area.

You did get funded. Now what?

Congratulations!

However, your work doesn’t stop with successfully making it through panel. While carrying out your research, please keep the following in mind:

  • Your institution’s research office can help with queries or problems.
  • Please let the portfolio manager who looks after your area know about good news stories that we can disseminate through our communication channels.
  • Make sure you complete outcomes of your research in Researchfish. This can be done throughout the year, then submitted during the submission window.

Don’t wait until your grant comes to an end to start thinking about your next steps. 

Further Assistance

If you have additional questions that aren’t answered here, please consider the following resources:

  • Your institution’s research office: This is a great way to find out more information about general EPSRC policy and activities, as well as processes that may be specific to your institution.
  • Colleagues: Colleagues who are familiar with applying to and reviewing for EPSRC can potentially provide subject-specific guidance for your proposal.
  • Portfolio Managers: As EPSRC portfolio managers we are happy to provide general help about the peer review process and our given research areas. However, we are not technical experts and we cannot provide advice on the content of proposals. Instead, take advantage of the EPSRC remit checking service if you have any concerns regarding which research council your proposal is best suited for.

The information provided here is correct at time of publishing (January 2019).