In UK funding processes, for example with UKRI funders, it is common for you to receive the reviewers’ comments before your proposal is considered at a funding panel. In many cases you will be invited to provide a written response to the reviewers’ comments for the panel members to consider when ranking your proposal, this is usually referred to as the ‘PI Response’.

In my former life as a manager at the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, I convened more funding panel meetings than I care to remember, and consequently, saw the influence a good (or bad) PI response can have on the final ranking of proposals. I cannot stress this enough, your PI response is an important factor in determining the overall outcome of your bid.

Don’t believe anyone that tells you the deal is already done and that it’s not worth spending time on your response. The PI response is your golden opportunity to address any concerns raised by the reviewers, reiterate the strengths of your proposal and make sure the funding panel members know that you (and your team) are the right person/people to deliver the research. It’s your opportunity to have the last word, so don’t let it pass you by, even if you’re feeling a little sore from the reviews.

So then, how do you ensure that your response hits the right mark? Well there’s no magic formula I’m afraid, and I’ve seen a wide variety of highly effective responses that are written very differently, but here are a few key ‘Do’s’ and ‘Don’ts’ to consider when you’re crafting your response. (You might also like to check out this guidance from UKRI designed for FLF applicants, but the guidance on page 3 is applicable to all)

The Do’s

DO: Pause before you respond – We all know that defensive feeling that we get when we get some negative or critical comments. If you’ve received some comments that have ruffled your feathers, it might be tempting to write your response while you’re riding high on the adrenaline you get when you feel you’ve been wronged or misunderstood. However, an overly defensive response does not play well with panels. Therefore, it’s better to wait a day or two after receiving your reviews before returning to write your response, once you’ve had time to reflect more objectively on the comments. If you really do need to get some things off your chest – write the impassioned response you really want to write first, then file that away and re-write the objective version. Just be careful that you send the right version to your funders!

DO: Systematically identify and address all the questions and concerns raised – Too many times in panel discussions I heard ‘the PI robustly addressed points A and B, but failed to mention points X and Y’, or ‘the PI responded comprehensively to all the questions raised by reviewer D, but gave no consideration to the seemingly valid points made by reviewer E’. As you can imagine, this does not help your case. I recommend getting your highlighters out and systematically working through each review to identify and list each point you will need to respond to and then crossing them off once you’ve addressed it in your PI response. If it helps, get someone else to look through the reviews with you in case they spot things you don’t. By working through them systematically in this way, you can feel confident that you’re not skipping over important points.

DO: Acknowledge where improvements can be made and how you would do this – Perfection is a myth. It is not possible to write a ‘perfect’ research proposal and there will always be aspects you could improve upon. Part of the role of the reviewers is to spot where minor changes could make a positive difference to the research. They are seeing it from a different perspective from you and might well spot something you’d not previously thought of. This is great, because ultimately it will make the research better. So, if your reviewers make a valid suggestion that you could reasonably implement within the bounds of the funding you’re asking for then don’t dismiss it. Instead, thank them for their useful insights and provide a clear explanation of how you will incorporate their suggestions into your existing research plans.

DO: Respectfully and robustly justify your approaches – In some instances you will not agree with points made by your reviewers, and you will have solid and informed rationales for the approaches you propose. In this case it is appropriate for you to present a robust counterargument to the reviewers’ concerns. Keep this clear, factual and evidence-based as far as possible. Do not criticise the views of the reviewers (see the don’ts), instead, draw upon existing data and research where you can and/or highlight the skills and expertise in the research team to provide assurances of your ability to deliver.

DO: Thank the reviewers – Whatever you think of the reviews, your reviewers have spent their valuable time reading and evaluating your proposal, so it is important that you give a sentence over in your response to acknowledge this. The panel members, as a collective part of the peer review process, will appreciate that you recognise the effort people are putting into the process.

The Don’ts

DON’T: Refuse to respond – I only saw this happen a handful of times, but I can confirm that it did not go down at all well with the funding panels! However the earlier phases of the process have gone for you, the PI response is your ‘last word’ and it is crucial that you take it. If you receive completely glowing reviews and there’s not much to respond to, then use it as an opportunity to acknowledge and highlight some of the strengths your reviewers identified. If you’ve had a shocker and the reviews are very negative, this is your chance to set the record straight. If you refuse to submit a response you either come across as arrogant or petulant – neither of which will endear you to the panel…..

DON’T: Play reviewers’ comments off against each other – When addressing reviewers’ points it’s important that you present your own evidence and rationales rather than simply saying ‘reviewer X’ thought this aspect was good so that disproves the point made by ‘reviewer Y’. Of course, you can draw upon the reviewers’ comments where appropriate to bolster your argument, but make sure you clearly and robustly present your case first.

DON’T: Comment on the validity of the reviewers’ expertise (or get personal) – You might think you know who your reviewers are but be very careful about making assumptions in your response about your reviewers’ expertise. There have been several occasions I’ve witnessed where a PI has questioned the validity of the reviewer’s expertise and it’s been (a) their nominated reviewer, and/or (b) a leading expert in the field. You can imagine how this makes the PI look. As a rule, whatever your personal thoughts are, in your PI response do not criticise the expertise of the reviewers or make any personal remarks. Instead, spend your word count on presenting your very best response to their questions and concerns.

DON’T: Appeal to the panel to add more/less weight to particular reviews – Whilst you might feel that a reviewer has missed the point, or is not well equipped to review your bid, it is the panel’s decision about how they will use the evidence presented to them. They may well decide to lean on some reviews more heavily than others and could even decide to discount a review if they felt it had incorrectly interpreted the proposal. However, it is best not to try to directly steer them to this via your PI response. Instead, focus your energy on presenting them with the evidence they need to feel confident in your approaches.

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