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The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) is a major funder of health research in the United Kingdom. Selecting the most promising studies to fund is crucial, and external expert peer review is used to inform the funding boards. Our aim was to evaluate the influence of different kinds and numbers of peer review and reviewer scores on Board funding decisions, and how we might modify the process to reduce the workload for stakeholders.
Our mixed method study included i) retrospective cross sectional analysis of funding board and external reviewer scores for second stage applications for research funding, using Receiver Operator Characteristic (ROC) curves to quantify the influence of reviewer scores on funding decisions and ii) qualitative interviews with thirty stakeholders (funding board members, applicants, external peer reviewers and NIHR staff).
Analysis of ROC area for reviewers indicated that areas changed very little with increasing numbers of reviewers from four to seven or more. External reviewers with clinical, methodological or patient expertise all appeared to influence Board funding decisions to a similar extent. The stakeholders interviewed valued peer review but felt it was important to develop a more proportionate process, to better balance its benefit with the workload of obtaining, preparing, reading and responding to reviews. Reviews are of most value when they fill gaps in expertise on the Board. Less than four reviews was felt to be insufficient but more than six, excessive. Workload could be reduced by making reviews more focused on the strengths and weaknesses of applications and identifying flaws which are potentially “fixable”.
Stakeholders supported the need for peer review in evaluating funding applications. Our results suggest that four to six peer reviews per application is optimum, depending on the expertise needed to complement that of advisory boards.
It takes on average 17 years to translate a promising laboratory development into better patient treatments or services. About 10 years of this innovation process lies within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) research pathway. Innovations developed through research have both national and global impact, so selecting the most promising studies to fund is crucial. Peer review of applications is part of the NIHR research funding process, but requires considerable resources. The NIHR is committed to improving efficiency and proportionality of this process. This study is part of a wider piece of work being undertaken by NIHR (1) to reduce the complexity of the funding pathway and thus make a real difference to patients lives.
This study elicited the views of various stakeholders concerning current and possible future methods for peer review of applications for research funding. Stakeholder groups included: members of boards with responsibility for making funding decisions; applicants (both successful and unsuccessful); peer reviewers and NIHR staff. Qualitative interviews were conducted with stakeholders selected from each group, and results were analyzed and integrated using a thematic template analytical method. The results were used to inform a larger online opinion survey which will be reported separately.
The views and insights of thirty stakeholders across the four groups about the peer review process of applications for funding will be presented. Findings generalizable to other funding programs outside the NIHR will be emphasized. The key themes which emerged included: strengths and weaknesses of applications, feedback, targeting and acknowledgement of peer reviewers.
The results of our study of peer review processes carried out by one national research funder has relevance for other funding organizations, both within our country and internationally.
This study compared the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Technology Assessment (HTA) Programme portfolio of research with the united Kingdom (UK) burden of disease, as measured by Disability-Adjusted Life Years (DALYs).
Design: Cross-sectional study.
Setting: The HTA Programme cohort included all funded applications (n = 363) received by the HTA Programme during the period 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2016. The sample contained primary research and evidence syntheses, all purely methodological studies were excluded since these are not comparable to the other study types.
Main Outcome Measure: Proportion of spend for each of the twenty-one Health Research Classification System (HRCS) health categories were compared with burden of disease in the UK calculated using 2015 DALY data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) Global Health Data Exchange (GHDx).
The funded HTA Programme projects totalled about GBP397million research spend, which broadly reflected the UK DALY burden. Overall, there was less than 5 percent difference between the actual and predicted programme spend based on the burden of disease in the UK in most instances (seventeen out of the twenty-one HRCS Health Categories).
The largest categories of apportioned spend were Cancer (accounting for 12.1 percent of portfolio), and Mental Health (11.8 percent of portfolio) which particularly reflected the 9.8 percent burden of disease to the UK. Most notable deviations from DALY, where spend was lower than disease burden, were in the Cancer, Cardiovascular and Musculoskeletal categories; which may reflect the importance of other, notably charity, funding.
The HTA Programme spend broadly aligns with burden of disease as measured using DALYs. Discrepancies were expected owing to the programme remit and its approach to commissioning research to address market failure particularly in areas that are not already well supported by research charities or industry. Regular review of DALY data during research prioritisation and commissioning allows the HTA Programme to identify and address shortfalls in disease areas and to balance its portfolio.
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