Conflicts of interest in the review of grant proposals

From The Embassy of Good Science

Conflicts of interest in the review of grant proposals

What is this about?

When a grant proposal is reviewed, the reviewers can have a confict of interest (COI). COIs should be declared by external reviewers and employees of research funding organizations (RFOs). RFOs and/or host institutions applying for funding need to have a code in place stating what constitutes a COI, how to declare a COIs, and what steps need to be taken when there is a COI.

Why is this important?

By not declaring COIs, reviewers undermine the transparancy and honesty of the application process. The role of reviewers and the process of reviewing grant applications differs greatly among RFOs. However, many RFOs stipulate the role of reviewers for internal (staff) members, invited external reviewers and appointed committee members. In all instances having a COI when reviewing a grant proposal needs to be declared

For whom is this important?

What are the best practices?

The Dutch funding agencies ZonMw and NWO have set up guidelines for dealing with COIs in the reviewing process. COI citeria include:

  • personal interests
  • professional interests
  • interests arising out of other positions
  • business (financial or economic) interests

The following personal interests always exclude participation in the process:

  • being the applicant or joint applicant
  • having written any part of an application without being an applicant or joint applicant
  • having any of the following relations with the applicant or joint applicant
  • actual or anticipated project manager or sub-project manager
  • direct manager
  • blood relation or affinity (up to and including the third degree
  • contract of cohabitation (other than a civil partnership
  • dean of the applicant’s institute[1]

Both ZonMw and NWO ask reviewers to declare their COIs. Next, the head of the committee assesses the impact of the declared COIs. He or she can decide if the reviewer cannot assess a particular application, or if he or she should not partake in the review process at all. Subsequently, the committee states whether they agree or disagree with this decision. Moreover, to ensure impartiality, individual reviewers do not get to see each other’s scores. After the review process has concluded, the reviewers assess whether the process has raised new insights into COIs. In the worst case scenario, if the process has been influenced by a reviewer’s COI, the whole review process is redone.

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