Dr Sara Shinton

Photo by Green Chameleon on Unsplash

This blog summarises some of the content from our Resilience, Response & Recycling session run by Sara Shinton, FLF Director and John Morison, Professor of Jurisprudence at Queen’s University Belfast. It’s aimed at anyone who has received a negative peer review response and wants some advice on how to construct an effective response.

The slides and handouts from the session are linked to below. I’ve written them to be reasonably self-explanatory so hope they help you to identify personal resilience strategies and to help you decide what is the best response to any proposal rejections. This blog will focus on the discussions we had in the workshop with John Morison, in response to four questions about responding to peer review. We were mostly talking about the grant processes, but there are parallels with publications too.

  • What makes a convincing response?
  • What pitfalls have you seen people fall into?
  • How do YOU write an effective response?
  • What are YOUR responses to reviews?

John started by saying that he’d applied for many grants and received many rejections. He echoed the early emphasis on resilience, saying that moving on from sadness and anger are vital, but not easy.

He started by reassuring our attendees about the fairness and quality of panel decisions. When he first sat on a panel he thought he had over prepared by reading everything but quickly realise that everyone else was as prepared and familiar with the proposals they were deciding on. He pointed out that panels often cover a wide range of topics, going right to the edges of each individual’s comfort zone, so they rely on the reports from the expert reviewers and the applicant response to these.

He recalled occasions where he’d seen disciplinary squabbles and what he called discipline “sectarianism” evident in reviews and that this was dismissed by the panels he had sat on. He also explained that the panel always recognises the effort each applicant has made and they are determined to safeguard the process so they are treated fairly.

What makes a convincing response?

John is impressed by responses that build on the application, but also go beyond this in their responses. They don’t take on reviewers in combative terms, but where good feedback has found a weakness will give ground graciously and admit that they haven’t presented enough evidence. Good responses are written with a confidence about their research plans and their ability to deliver on their ambitions, reassuring that they are working on the scale they have set out, have access to the resources they will need and quickly clear up any technical issues. John commented that in his field (Law) the reviewers typically question the “doability” of a programme of work rather than having issues with theoretical frameworks. In short, your response must reassure the panel that you can do what you have set out in your proposal.

What pitfalls have you seen people fall into?

John has seen problems for applicants who have indicated their proposal is interdisciplinary, when they largely sit in a single discipline with expertise and track record in that area. Their proposal will be sent to experts in the other fields and they will often identify omissions and assumptions that weaken it in their view. So he advises applicants to think carefully about who will review and to be careful about positioning work as IDR unless they are confident it is convincing to these other disciplines.

He explained that as a panel member, you draw up a checklist of the reviewer comments and review the response to ensure all have been addressed. This is a fundamental and simple piece of advice for applicants to follow. He also encourages you to state what seems obvious! Your panel is very unlikely to include people in your specific area of research and even if they are, many panels are under clear instruction NOT to re-review (FLFs who observe the sift panels in July will see this policed by chairs and conveners if it happens). So put everything in, even if you feel it’s obvious and evident in the proposal.

We also discussed situations where we had seen applicants blind-sided by an unfair review which had distracted them from comments from more reasonable reviewers. If the response only address critical challenges, but overlooks points of clarification, the panel cannot confirm the reviewers’ concerns are met and usually the proposal won’t progress.

How do YOU write an effective response?

John reflected on times where he wished he had requested an unfair review be struck out by the funder. It’s always worth asking for it to be removed before your proposal reaches the panel if you can demonstrate it isn’t a fair or valid critique, but get advice from a mentor or close colleague to help judge objectively if this is the case.

Assuming all reviews are fair, John starts by ensuring that the originality of the proposal was clear to the reviewers. He had some experience of funders who were nervous of very novel approaches, and explained that sometimes you need to prepare the ground in the year or so before you plan to apply by raising the importance of the question you want to address through media engagement.

Although the panels he has sat on do not consider track record as a criteria, so as not to disadvantage earlier career applicants, he admitted that when a proposal isn’t convincing, that sometimes you may look to see if the researcher has done something similar previously which might explain why they have taken the “doability” for granted. Again, if the reviewers question this, set out your evidence against their concerns.

What are YOUR responses to reviews and decisions?

Finally, I asked John how he felt about the reviews and funding decisions he gets. It helps him to remember that the process is a competition and not everyone can win. His response after a decision is influenced by whether his work is classified as fundable or not fundable. He’s been on panels where they’ve hoped that a particular proposal will be above the funding threshold, but seen them lose out to results from other panels. If your research is above the funding threshold then take heart and think about how to strengthen it. He warned against submitting to another funder without a fundamental reworking in line with the second funders strategy and approach – funders are used to see each other’s proposals appearing with only cosmetic changes and they rarely land well.

Finally, John encouraged our attendees to really listen to people in their field when they talk about your work. What do THEY find interesting? What are THEY not convinced by? What do THEY suggest you might do differently? These external perspectives give you an insight into the reviewer mindset, so make sure you engage with their reactions.

A huge thank you to John for sharing his experiences, including some difficult ones with such honesty. He is likely to be typical of other senior researchers around you – don’t be afraid to ask your local leaders about how they respond to review and funding decisions.

Please click to access the handouts from the session. And click here to download the session slides. Click here to see University of Edinburgh Resilience guide it’s one of many available. (Sadly the IOP one seems to have left their website.)


2023 continues with a strong policy theme with our monthly events ‘Research and Public Policy: Increasing Impact with Professor Graeme Reid’. This five-part series of in-person events, taking place around the UK, gives fellows access to someone with a lifetime of experience in policy from multiple perspectives. We’ll be posting key messages from these events if you are unable to attend, whilst respecting the “Chatham House Rules” which prompted people to ask questions and seek guidance in confidence.

We’ve organised the insights from Graeme and his guests into three themes: orientation, messaging, and relationships and access. The first blog in this series focused on orientation and provided advice to help Fellows understand the process and eco system of policy making so they can prepare and engage effectively.

This second blog focuses on messaging and draws together discussions from our first three events in Edinburgh, London and Salford.

Whether you are familiar with the policy world or not, your first interaction with policy makers requires thought.

For written text, this might be around its length and structure; it might involve slightly different referencing styles to those you have used in academic writing; or it might need to use slightly different language or ordering of points in the text. Read more about writing for policy makers from the University of Edinburgh’s policy team and from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.

It may be worth considering how best to use the time at in-person meetings, and when to arrange them. Preparation for larger events should consider other attendees, identifying who you want to speak with and why. By shaping the key messages you want to convey you will increase impact and be prepared for counter arguments and challenging questions! Hearing counter arguments is essential in shaping the bigger picture and understanding other parties’ benefits and difficulties. While it may be hard to respond immediately, these encounters will ultimately help you gain a better understanding of the issue and allow you to get an appreciation of the messaging that policymakers receive. Following up from insightful interactions at events could involve sharing any evidence pieces discussed, offering to provide a written contribution to event proceedings or planning next actions with any like-minded new contacts. Read more about getting the most out of networking events here.

Regardless of the messaging, a recurring word of advice from Prof. Reid was to “take a 360 approach  That is to consider all the stakeholders involved in your topic. For many policy areas the stakeholder list can be significant and vary from policy makers, local authorities, local and international businesses, researchers, health professionals, and of course the general public. Each of these stakeholders will have a slightly different stance on the issue, different personalities, and different methods of communication, so being aware of this “360” viewpoint is critical in your own effective messaging. Not only will it force you to rethink and refine your own point of view, but it will allow you to demonstrate an awareness of the complexity of the issue and show where your expertise plays a critical role in the bigger picture.

A “360” understanding of an issue will also allow you to better appreciate the multiple steps required to shape a policy and enable you to deliver your messages at the most opportune points. Be prepared to be adaptive and opportunistic to strike while the iron’s hot!

Depending on the subject area, another aspect of the “360” approach might include considering legacy policy, public opinion from recent decades and upcoming plans in the geographical region or policy area. For example, the effects of numerous mine closures in the 1980s are still being felt by many communities and policies that resonate with these sensitivities must be managed with careful consideration of all stakeholders, past and present. This example also lends itself to the combination of evidence-informed policy making and political-based policy making; having an awareness of both in a “360” approach will place you in a stronger position to inform and advise.

Prof. Reid suggested that by raising awareness of an issue first you will be in a better place to eventually advise. This may feel counter-intuitive if your work is still in progress, incomplete or at a very early stage. But raising awareness can be as simple as taking a step back from the detail, describing what the issue is and setting out the 360-perspective (including those pesky counter arguments and passionate campaign groups). With this full picture you will be in a stronger position to create interest and gain trust which might lead to calls for evidence, preparation of briefings, or calls for public inquiries. All of which you will be poised to contribute to!

On top of Leadership development programmes and events, The Future Leaders Fellows Development Network has a team of Managers in specialist areas on hand to support FLFs navigating their fellowship. The team has grown to include support on Innovation, Knowledge Exchange, Policy Engagement and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion.

Sharon Morgan Young, Innovation Manager

Sharon Morgan-Young is the new Innovation Manager in the Network. She is based at Queen’s University in Belfast, which has been recognised as the UK’s most entrepreneurial university. Sharon can help Fellows by discussing whether research projects might have commercial potential as well as considering pathways to translate research innovations into commercial success. Sharon can provide advice and guidance around identifying Value Propositions, beginning the process of Customer Discovery, and giving insight into creating effective business networks.

Email Sharon – s.morgan@qub.ac.uk

Paul Grimshaw, Knowledge Exchange Manager

Paul Grimshaw is the new Knowledge Exchange Manager for the Network. Paul has a background in innovation research and management, with experience working in and between industry, university, and charity sectors. His main role is working to help build links, support and resources for Fellows.

He is on-hand to help develop useful on-line and in-person resources and to connect fellows to timely help and support relating to all aspects of Knowledge Exchange including; Business Engagement, Research Collaboration, Working with the third sector and Public Engagement.

Email Paul at – paul.grimshaw@sas.ac.uk

Katie Nicoll Baines, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Manager

Katie is an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) specialist and experienced facilitator/trainer with expertise in researching barriers to career progression experienced by women and LGBT+ people related to grant funding.

Katie works alongside Udeni Salmon to create and implement our EDI strategy. She is responsible for our embedding principles of equality, diversity and inclusion across all network programmes and activities.  She supports our training and development team to embed EDI in the leadership training for fellows and develops bespoke training to respond to specific EDI needs within the Network. Katie also works with UKRI on strategies to support Inclusive Research Design.

Email Katie at – k.nicollbaines@ed.ac.uk

Helen Freeman, Policy Engagement Manager

Helen is the Policy Engagement Manager for The Network. Helen’s role supports Future Leaders Fellows and UKRI-nominated Early Career Researchers through the delivery of policy-related training, community networking and expanding their understanding of the policy landscape.

Throughout 2023, Helen will be developing an online Toolkit to bring together a wide range of policy-engagement strategies and opportunities, such as tips on how to write evidence for public inquiries and how to keep up to date with the latest policy developments in your field. The Network is working closely with the Universities Policy Engagement Network (UPEN) to deliver online Policy Masterclasses and provide opportunities for Fellows to meet policy makers.

Email Helen at – h.m.Freeman@leeds.ac.uk

As always, if you ever want to contact our broader team email hello@flfdevnet.com with your queries.