Guidance on processes for the allocation of internal funding for research and impact

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Introduction

The University offers many sources of internal funding to support research and impact activity. It is important that decisions regarding the allocation of funds are robust, transparent and equitable. The University also has a responsibility to ensure that all funds it receives are spent in accordance with the legitimate expectations of the funding providers and the law and in the public interest. The following factors should be considered when designing processes to support the allocation of internal funding for research and impact:

1. Panel membership

(a)     Decisions should be made by a representative panel, rather than by a single individual. Factors to consider in a panel’s composition:

  • A representative spread of members across departments/faculties, with appropriate experience;
  • The balance of age, gender and ethnicity;
  • The career stages represented, including early career researchers and post-docs where appropriate;
  • Whether there is a need for student representation;
  • Designation of an experienced panel secretary in order to support robust record keeping. Careful consideration should be given to the inclusion of professional/ administrative/ support staff on a panel, to ensure that there are no actual or potential conflicts of interest (e.g. if a member of staff has assisted with the preparation of an application, or will be involved in delivering a project).

(b)      If the panel will be operating on a long term basis, consideration should be given to the standard term of office for members (the University standard is three years). Rotation of membership should be encouraged. It can also be helpful to stagger members’ terms of office in order to ensure continuity of experience within and across faculties.

2. Assessment of applications

(a)      A standardised application form should be used in order to ensure that all applications are being assessed on the basis of a comparable information set.

(b)      Transparent, equitable and succinct criteria for the award of funds should be established and made available to applicants in advance as part of the guidance for the application process. There should be clarity regarding the relative weight to be given to the fit with strategic priority and to the quality of the proposed research. Within a competitive application process, it is likely that the latter will need to be elucidated further through the panel’s discussions, in which case this should be followed by constructive feedback to applicants once funding decisions have been made.

(c)       Involvement of HoDs and DRCs:

i.   Application procedures should stipulate that all relevant DRC Chairs should have an opportunity to comment on the application in draft, and should receive a final copy of the submitted application for information.

ii.  Applications above £2,000 should be formally signed off by the lead DRC Chair, in consultation with the DRC Chairs from other participating departments.

iii.  If the application procedure requires a DRC Chair to make a value judgement in relation to the application (e.g. prioritisation in order of relative departmental strategic priority), this should not be done by the DRC Chair alone, but in consultation with at least one other DRC colleague, and ideally with a quorate representation of the DRC as a whole.

iv.  Applications involving the contribution of departmental resource and/or the employment of staff should be formally signed off by the HoD of each contributing department.

(d)    It is helpful to develop brief generic scoring descriptors with reference to the criteria for the award of funds, for use by panel members in order to score applications. For example, the following score descriptors are used in the assessment of Research Priming Fund applications:

A:  This proposal is scientifically or technically flawed

B:  This proposal does not meet one or more of the assessment criteria, or is a request for funding outside of the remit of the various research priming schemes

C:  This proposal meets all assessment criteria but with clear weaknesses

D:  This is a good proposal that meets all assessment criteria but with minor weaknesses

E:  This is a strong proposal that broadly meets all assessment criteria

F:  This is a very strong proposal that fully meets all assessment criteria

Panel members should also make a note of supporting comments in order to justify their scores.

(e)      Where panel members are to be allocated particular applications for review, at least two reviewers should be allocated per application, and the combination of reviewers should vary from application to application, so that scores can be moderated across the panel. Consideration should be given to the balance between subject specialism and a more generic approach as the basis for assessment, bearing in mind the need to identify and manage conflicts of interest (see below).

(f)       Scores and supporting comments should be discussed at a face to face meeting of all panel members in order to reach final decisions collectively and in the round. To this end, it is helpful for all panel members, and not only the Chair, to have read through all the applications. Particular attention should be paid to applications where:

(i) There is a significant discrepancy between reviewers’ scores; and/or

(ii) The application has been reviewed by a panel member who is consistently scoring towards the top and/or the bottom of the scale; and/or

(iii) Middle ranking scores have been achieved and the decision whether to fund is marginal.

It is helpful to collate scores before the meeting so that the Chair, supported by the Secretary, can identify in advance where discussion needs to be targeted.

3. Identifying and managing conflicts of interest

(a)      Panel members should be required to identify and report any pertinent potential or actual conflicts of interest which might lead to perceived or actual bias in the panel’s decision-making, so that the conduct of the Committee’s work can be managed accordingly and the conflicts mitigated. Panel members should not be involved in assessing applications where a potential or actual conflict of interest is involved.

(b)       Panel members should not assess applications from their own department or from a research entity of which they are a member; however, the scope of potential conflicts of interest extends much further than this. Further guidance in relation to research is set out in the URC procedures for Declaration of Members’ Interests. It is important to note that this guidance is not exhaustive, and ultimately it is for individuals to assess on a case by case basis whether or not their activities could give rise to a conflict of interest, and to disclose these activities.

(c)        It is likely that some conflicts of interest will only become apparent once applications have been allocated to panel members. In such cases, the panel member has a duty to disclose as soon as possible, so that the application can be reallocated in a timely fashion.

(d)        During panel meetings, in any instance where a potential conflict of interest has been identified, the person concerned should take no part in discussion or decision-making relating to that item. The Chair should consider whether it is appropriate for the panel member to leave the meeting for the duration of the relevant business. This should be considered mandatory if an application from the panel member is under discussion, including where broader decisions which might impact upon the success or otherwise of that application are being made. At the start of meeting, it is good practice for the Chair to invite members to declare formally any potential conflicts of interest relating to the business of the meeting, and for the minutes of the meeting to record this and to indicate how any conflicts of interest have been handled. 

4. Record keeping and reporting

(a)      The panel’s scores should be recorded, and the decisions made in relation to individual applications, including the rationale behind these decisions, should be formally minuted.

(b)       Records of the panel’s business should be secure, stable and accessible by the University as required.

(c)       A summary of the decisions made should be reported to the University Research Committee.

5. Providing feedback

(a)      It is good practice to provide brief feedback for all applicants, whether successful or unsuccessful. Panels should consider what would be appropriate and helpful in terms of identifying strengths and/or areas for improvement, without committing themselves to drawn-out correspondence with applicants.

(b)      If funding calls are being held regularly, the panel should consider whether in particular cases it wishes to encourage unsuccessful applicants to reapply in a subsequent round.

6. Terms and conditions of awards

(a)       Successful applicants should be provided with a clear statement of the terms and conditions pertaining to their award. These are likely to include:

  • The deadline for spending against the award. For internal University funds, this is almost always the University’s year end ie 31 July in the academic year in question, following which all remaining balances are cleared back to central University funds.
  • Requirements regarding reporting on the outcomes of awards. Reporting should take place via PURE wherever possible.

It is good practice also to remind PIs of the University’s Codes of Practice on Research Integrity and Ethics, which apply to all those undertaking research under the University’s auspices.                                                                          

(b)       It is important that expenditure against an award is fully auditable. Award-holders should be allocated a central spending code, to which all project costs should be charged directly. Whilst expenditure will be managed at departmental level, it is good practice to keep an eye centrally on the headline spend against individual awards, and to send a reminder to PIs and their departmental administrators to check and correct any overspends or underspends in good time before the final spending deadline. It is worth clarifying with Management Accounts whether any overspends remaining after the spending deadline will be corrected from departmental funds. If this is the case, then PIs and their HoDs should be advised of this as part of the terms and conditions of the award.

(c)       Accurate records of expenditure, combined with reports on award outcomes, enable panels to demonstrate that grants are deployed effectively, and so to make the case to the University for continued funding in a particular area. Where funding streams are in operation on a long-term basis, panels may consider suspension of eligibility to submit applications, should a pattern of repeat underspends and/or failure to meet reporting requirements be identified. Panels may also wish to share information of this nature across funding streams.

 

 

Approved by University Research Committee: November 2016

Document ownership: Research Strategy and Policy Office