Part II of ‘How to be a lay reviewer of health research:’ Being on a scientific review panel

Last week I posted my top ten tips for patients and the public (‘lay reviewers’) who have been asked to review applications for health research funding.

Today I thought I would share my thoughts on what to expect when asked to be on a review panel; how to best contribute to the panel’s work in general and; what to consider when raising issues around public involvement in such a setting.

Funders establish review panels or committees to help them reach a decision about what research to fund. The panel can be asked to look at anything from projects lasting a few years and amounting to a few tens of thousands of £s, to larger programmes running over 5 years or more. Or to approve what is often called infrastructure (a
collaboration, new venture or perhaps organisation) amounting to many £millions. Some are ‘standing’ committees that run for years. Others are convened for a particular grant round or task.

The important point about review panels is that they are there to reach an independent viewpoint on whether an application is worth funding. These recommendations are then made to the funder who takes the final decision (perhaps it’s Board or a committee with delegated authority to do this).

As a lay member you have been asked by the funder to work with the other experts around the table to reach a consensus on whether the application should be funded. Likely considerations in reaching this view include whether it is a good idea, based on sound science, fits with the criteria set down by the funder, will be well run and led, involves the public and represents a good investment.

Probably the one thing that will strike you if you ever sit on such a panel is the amount of effort put into making these things work fairly, transparently and efficiently.

There can be as many as 30 people on larger panels but around 10-12 is more typical. As well as assembled experts like yourself there will likely be a number of representatives from the funder present. They are sometimes known collectively as the ‘Secretariat’ and have a number of roles. They are there to make sure an accurate note is taken of the decisions taken and the reasons behind them (people do challenge them!). And to advise the panel Chair and its members on things like funding criteria.

There’s also usually a lot of paper! However, it does seem that more and more people come to the meetings and work off their computer or laptop. You might wish to do so if you have one and feel comfortable working like this. Some people continue to prefer paper.

Anyway, here are my top tips this time:

1. ‘Preparation is all you need.’ Yes, as ever, the key to feeling confident as a lay reviewer on a panel lies in good preparation. Sounds obvious but when it goes wrong for me it’s often because I have short-changed myself on prep time. Leaving enough time to read the documents, get to the venue and sort out your papers on arrival, is very important.

Otherwise you will appear at the meeting – late! – like a living approximation of Boris Johnson’s hair after he has woken up: endearing perhaps, but lacking in gravitas most certainly. And you want to be taken seriously. Sorry, but first impressions do matter.

However, your preparation really begins from the moment you become a member of the panel. So, before agreeing to be on it, clarify how you are going to be supported. Can you get hard copies of the papers if you want? Can they arrange travel and accommodation if necessary? Will there be any training or induction provided? Will they be using accessible venues and review formats?

2. ‘Knowing me, knowing you.’ It is worth taking some time to get to know the members of the Secretariat – particularly the panel administrator or secretary – and, if possible, the Chair, before the meeting.

A good funder should make time for this to happen in advance of the first meeting. If not in-person then by phone. It’s the opportunity for you to ask questions about the process, how they run things and clarify practical arrangements.

Getting to know the Chair will also give you an idea of the
‘personality of the panel.’ His or her style of Chairing will have a strong bearing on whether the panel feels formal, informal or simply chaotic.

If a pre-meet or similar does not happen, you should take the initiative on arrival and introduce yourself. And ask to meet with them some time in the future if you will be on the panel for some years. It’s important to have a good relationship with those running the shop. Don’t forget they need you as much as you need them – it really is an enormous headache for administrators to find panel members and they won’t want to lose you.

One last point on this is that I would expect a good Chair to always give the lay member(s) an opportunity to say something if they want to (see below for further guidance!) as each application is looked at.

3. It’s ok not knowing everything.’
No one else on the panel knows everything (although they might like you to think that they do) so why should you? Ask questions where you think it might be important to clarify something. In fact asking questions is one of the most valuable things any reviewer can do. I have seen the most innocent of questions completely blow open an application. What do they say: ‘The only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.’ However…..

4. ‘Less is more.’ I think this is where people generally go wrong in all sorts of meetings, not just review panels. They don’t just take the floor, they hog it. Until we are all so bored and frustrated that it can infect the whole proceedings.

It’s important to bear in mind that the panel may be looking at 10-15 applications in a day with 15/20 minutes to look at each. So, have your main points ready to share. Two, perhaps three at most. But maybe it’s really not worth mentioning the spelling mistake or poor grammar. You must focus on those things that you think either make the research excellent or unviable from a public involvement standpoint.

5. You don’t have to find something to say about every application.

6. ‘It’s not just about public involvement.’
Often when reviewing you are asked to focus on public involvement in particular or even score only that part of the application. I don’t have a big problem with that. But you have every right to comment on things outside of this. For instance, it’s not uncommon for panels to interview the applicants these days. You can tell a lot by body language and how they interact with one another. And unless I’ve missed something, patients and the public have eyes and ears as well. Use them.

6. ‘Be prepared to meet yourself.’
Talking of researchers being interviewed…

One day, as a teenager, I was standing at the bar in a pub. A man kept looking at me from the other side of the counter. I became
increasingly disconcerted as this wasn’t a pub to be conspicuous in. And then I realised it was my reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

At some point, a team will appear before the panel with a patient, carer or member of the public alongside them. They might be a co-applicant. They might not be. The point is, if they are there, then I think you should ask them a question. Particularly if no one else has. What you want to know is: how much part of the team do they feel? Why are they there?

7. ‘It’s ok to lose 5:1.’
Most review panels use some sort of scoring system to help them reach a decision. Typically you are asked to give your score as part of your initial assessment (sometimes in writing before the meeting, sometimes at it) and then there’s a period of moderation in the panel to reach an agreed score. This happens once everyone’s opinion has been heard.

The first time you are informed you have to do this I guarantee you will panic. In the same way that you would if asked to turn up with the same colour underwear as your other panel members. How will I know? Will I look stupid? How do they know? Is there a secret code or initiation ceremony?

The important point is, you must give scores that reflect your opinion based on the criteria given. No one else’s. If you can support it with a cogent argument, people will respect you. Nor should you play safe by putting everything in the mid-range. That would be like living with a Liberal Democrat.

8. ‘Good manners go a long way.’ However much you dislike an application or are irritated by the applicants, keep your cool. The best demolitions of ideas and arguments I have heard have been those that are softly spoken and measured in tone.
You can always kick and scream in your hotel room afterwards like the rock star you always wanted to be.

9. ‘Your responsibility doesn’t finish at the door.’
My experience is that whatever we might think of our colleagues running these panels, they are actually trying to do the right thing. It’s hard work. Complicated. Inflated egos surround you. The wheels of the institution you work for often turn slowly.

So your feedback can be enormously helpful to them. If it’s positive don’t hold onto it. If it’s negative, share it but do so
constructively with one or two suggested solutions.

If your experience is a bad one, then ask the Secretariat how you raise this with them and the Chair. Get it dealt with but don’t let it fester.

10. ‘Safety in numbers.’
If there’s a.n.other lay member on the panel – and there should be – work together. You should not collude in how you reach an opinion or score but you can share thoughts about the things you look for, any trends in the applications and more. You will also have respective strengths that might complement each other when the panel meets.

Suggest to the organisation that all the lay reviewers are supported to get together to review how things are going. This could be helpful to improving the scheme in the future.

And finally…

The only other thing I would say is that when I started doing this I found being on a panel one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. But now it is one of the most enjoyable. It’s interesting. I love meeting and working with old and new colleagues. And I feel privileged to get to see so many good ideas in gestation.

Enjoy.

The only other thing I would say is that when I started doing this I found being on a panel one of the most intimidating experiences of my life. But now it is one of the most enjoyable. It’s interesting. I love meeting and working with old and new colleagues. I feel privileged to get to see so many good ideas in gestation. /

Simon Denegri
Chair, INVOLVE
NIHR National Director for Public Participation and Engagement in Research Twitter: @SDenegri
Please visit my blog at;
https://simondenegri.com/

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