Kata-Riina Valosaari (vasemmalla) ja Kyösti Husso (oikealla)

Review of applications aims at identifying the most promising and excellent research projects

30 Dec 2021

When the Academy of Finland’s decision-making bodies prepare and make funding decisions, they make use of not only the applications submitted but also the review reports drafted by international reviewers. What does the review of applications entail in the Academy’s different funding opportunities? And how is the review process developed in line with the ongoing changes in research and review practices at global level?

Peer review of applications is a fundamental part of the preparation of the funding decisions of the Academy of Finland and, ultimately, of all Academy activities. The Academy funds research, supports researchers at different career stages and strengthens research environments through a number of funding opportunities. The review is proportionate to the objectives of each funding opportunity. The idea is to ensure that the review is appropriate for the funding opportunity and its characteristics. In all Academy funding opportunities, the review of applications is also influenced by the Academy’s commitments at the strategic level, such as the promotion of responsible science.

Academy’s review of applications is based on peer review

Peer review is a special feature of research funding compared to other Finnish government grant award processes. In the preparation of research funding decisions, the review organised by the Academy of Finland is based on international peer review. Peer review is a form of assessment in which a group of reviewers operating in a similar environment assesses an object or objects selected by the organisation in question.

In the Academy’s review process the peer review groups are panels of experts. The panels consist of international experts in various fields of research. The aim of the international review is to avoid unconscious bias and disqualification. Biases and disqualification could become a threat if the review were organised only with domestic experts, because the Finnish scientific community is very small. The international review also aims to ensure that applications are evaluated in relation to the global level of research.

During the peer review the expert panels form an overall view of the applications they are evaluating. The purpose of the peer review panels organised by the Academy is to identify the most scientifically ambitious and promising research projects and thus provide key support for the preparation of funding decisions.

In some funding schemes that focus on Finnish society, such as strategic research funding, domestic experts in research impact can also be used in the panels.

The panels may also use separate opinions from individual experts if further views on certain applications are needed to support the panel’s work. In the final review, the Academy’s uses a six-point scale (1–6). In addition, expert panels in the Academy’s autumn call, for example, put the applications in ranking order. At the end of the process, the panel compiles its overall views into review reports on the applications. The review reports and the applications serve as key material to support the decision-makers in the preparation and implementation of funding decisions. In addition, the applicants receive feedback on their applications.

Review adapted to the different objectives of the funding schemes

Research funding granted by the Academy can be divided into three categories, which differ in their objectives and nature: researcher-oriented funding, organisation-oriented funding and thematic funding. The objectives of the funding scheme affect the review criteria and how the review is organised. In thematic programme calls, for instance, the criteria for scientific review include not only quality but also the suitability of the applications for the programme.

The key criteria used in reviewing the research plans are scientific quality, innovativeness and novelty value of the research as well as its impact within the scientific community. The highest rating on the six-point scale of the scientific review, 6 or outstanding, defines the research as exceptional in terms of novelty and innovation. The highest-ranked research is identified as having potential to promote science also at the international level. Other criteria for assessing scientific merits include the competence of the applicant or research team to carry out the project, the feasibility of the research plan, the quality of the research environment and collaborative networks, and the mobility and training of researchers.

Impact is examined on a broad basis not only from the point of view of scientific impact but also from the point of view of social impact in accordance with the objectives of the funding opportunity. For example, in the two-stage calls of strategic research programmes, particular attention is paid to identifying the potential for social impact. In the second stage of the call, a panel on societal relevance is convened in addition to the scientific panel. The panel focusing on relevance supports the preparations by providing valuable information to the decision-makers on the potential of the applications to produce research data that has an impact on society.

In some funding opportunities, such as organisation-oriented and thematic funding opportunities, reviewers may also interact directly with the applicants. For example, the peer review of applications for funding from the Finnish Flagship Programme is supported by interviews with key persons of the applicant organisations.

Improvements to review of applications in September call

The review of applications submitted to the Academy of Finland’s autumn call will be reformed based on feedback collected by the Academy. The reform comes as part of an effort to increase the time available to the panels to process and rank the best applications. In their feedback, the reviewers have strongly highlighted a wish that more attention and time should be devoted to the processing of the most competitive applications. The growing number of applications submitted to the autumn call require more efficient scheduling of remote meetings and improved review practices.

After the reform of the review of September call applications, review panels will discuss in depth the applications that have received a preliminary rating of 5 (excellent) or 6 (outstanding) from at least one reviewer. As applications that have received a positive funding decision are mainly given a rating of 5 or 6 in the autumn reviews, the reviewers will be able to put more focus on assessing the most competitive applications. However, panellists will continue to have the possibility of bringing less successful applications up for discussion based on draft reviews, if this is deemed necessary.

The reform will also clarify and harmonise the panel reviews and opinions on applications that receive ratings 1–4. With regard to final ratings, the reform will introduce a four-point scale in which all applications falling below ratings 4 (good) will be classified within the 1 to 3 range (fair to insufficient). Even after the reform, each applicant will receive a panel statement on their application.

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