A peek behind the scenes: Just how are our funding decisions made?

We recently welcomed the first group of early career researchers to observe some of our panel discussions and interviews for the Cancer Research UK Research Careers Committee. The idea was to demystify the review process and help researchers prepare their own applications. So, how did they get on? Here we open the floor to three of our observers to find out…

“Writing a fellowship application and preparing yourself for an interview can be a daunting task, especially as an early career researcher.” Dr Sweta Sharma Saha

As a post-doctoral researcher with the aim of establishing myself as an independent researcher in translational cancer research, my next career aim is to secure a fellowship as an early career researcher. I want to take the first steps toward establishing independence.

However, before I take this step, there are several questions I have before I’d feel confident in applying for a highly competitive and prestigious career development fellowship. For example, what is the experience level of applicants applying? What are the expectations for the applicants? How is an application judged and scored by a panel of experts? They are tricky to answer unless you have been through the process before, and so the Cancer Research UK observer scheme seemed to be just the right way to get some insight into questions like these.

And I’m glad to say that it was an excellent opportunity to understand how a candidate is evaluated at the interview stage by the experts. Getting to watch some of the interviews helped me get a sense of how a fellowship interview is structured. It also gave me a good idea of how the applicants are scored for both the quality and feasibility of a project, and the suitability of the person to carry out the proposed work and their potential as a future cancer research leader.

Writing a fellowship application and preparing yourself for an interview can be a daunting task, especially as an early career researcher, when you are balancing full-time lab work with fellowship applications. The observer scheme gave me a detailed insight of the complete process, from the expectations of a good application, to defending your research ideas and your candidature along with your team.

This has definitely helped reduce my anxiety and I feel more confident to prepare an application in future.

Sweta is a Research Associate at the Translational and Clinical Research Institute, Faculty of Medical Sciences, Newcastle University and based in the Newcastle University Centre for Cancer.

“To observe how decisions are made and get a sneak peek ‘behind the scenes’ would be incredibly useful…” Dr Ahsan Akram

The prospect of applying for a fellowship for an early career researcher remains a daunting and stressful process. As you are trying to articulate your research vision, you are constantly second guessing what the panel and reviewers will think.

Therefore, when the opportunity came to spend a day observing a CRUK Research Careers Committee funding panel, I immediately signed up. My motivation for doing so was simple – I am planning to apply to the same Committee for the next stage of my career and so to gain an insight into the process, to observe how decisions are made and get a sneak peek ‘behind the scenes’ would be incredibly useful.

Initially I was surprised with the number of people attending the meeting. The panel, other observers, and staff from CRUK were all present. As this was an online interview the majority kept their videos off, and microphones muted, and the interviewee would only see those who would be asking questions as well as the panel chair. The day was extremely interesting from a prospective applicant’s perspective for several reasons; first, it was clear that the leads had read the applications carefully. They considered the person, project, and place. This was reassuring given the importance of the process to the applicant. Secondly, it confirmed the competitive nature of the process. All the candidates were excellent in their subject area and coped well with the interview.

Overall, I felt the assessments and judgements made were fair and consistently applied, despite being from a pool of extremely diverse projects. Finally, although it is clear the process is extremely competitive, I came away with the feeling that if I apply then success would be down to me – to clearly articulate my research plans, and to defend this at interview.

Overall, I found the process extremely valuable. I am glad CRUK has led the way in opening the review process for prospective applications and I hope this is taken up by other funding bodies in the future. It has given me more confidence in the application process, what makes a successful application, what the panel will be looking for and an insight into how the scores will be calculated. Of course, this remains an extremely competitive panel and process, but I would recommend the opportunity to observe a panel to anyone who is considering applying to a funding scheme.

Ashan is a Cancer Research UK Clinician Scientist Fellow at the Centre for Inflammation Research and Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre.

“It was reassuring to see that the reviewers could change their opinions on an application based on how the applicant responded to their concerns.” Dr Rebecca Landy

I would highly recommend the opportunity to observe a CRUK funding panel meeting – I applied to observe a meeting because I am submitting my first CRUK funding application in the coming year and didn’t know much about what to expect.

Observing the funding panel meeting provided me with a much better understanding of the interview process and how the applications are judged, making the whole process less intimidating.

One part I found useful was the opportunity to see the comments the applicants received from the reviewers before their interview, and how closely that linked to the discussion after the applicant’s presentation. It was reassuring to see that the reviewers could change their opinions on an application based on how the applicant responded to their concerns – not everything was clear from the written applications, and it’s not possible to include every detail of every project due to the word limit, so some things were clarified during this discussion at the interview. This allowed the reviewers to be reassured that a project could work, or that an issue they had identified had been considered.

Another aspect I found interesting was that all the reviewers commented on the clarity of one particular application, and how much they appreciated that and enjoyed reading it, highlighting the importance of making your application easy to follow. It was also interesting to see that the interviews covered personal aspects in addition to the scientific research proposed, with someone on the panel dedicated to asking the applicants about their leadership style and personal development. I had not previously known that the quality and future potential of the candidate and the quality of the science are scored and given equal weighting when deciding which applications to fund.

Rebecca is a Research Fellow in the Clinical Genetics branch of the Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute in the US.

Our observer schemes are set up to support the next generation of researchers and equality, diversity and inclusion in research. They include positive action to offer individuals from underrepresented groups priority places to overcome the underrepresentation that has been highlighted by our diversity data report.

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