I don’t understand the “response to previous reviews” part of the CIHR Project Grant. Why would I want to highlight for reviewers that my previous application wasn’t good enough? I’m trying to figure out if I should respond to the reviews I received the last time I applied for a grant (and was unsuccessful) or if I should just skip this part of the application.
– Anonymous, Public Health
Dr. Editor’s response:
I almost always advise researchers to complete this optional module if you’re resubmitting an application. The only exception to this general advice would be if you are either:
- resubmitting three or more years after you last applied to this competition, in which case the chances are slim of reviewers still being around and remembering your previous application; or,
- rewriting your application and revising your project so substantially as to it being unrecognizable from the last time you applied.
If you fit either of these two categories, feel free to skip the module.
If, however, you are resubmitting a more recent application, it’s a good idea to complete this optional module. Many reviewers serve multiple sequential years on a committee; they will remember the proposals they’ve looked over and will want to see if you’ve engaged with the feedback they previously provided.
The module also provides you with some additional space to make the case for your proposal, and I like to see applicants taking the fullest advantage of every word and page they’re able to complete. Anthony A. Volk et al. wrote about this same part of SSHRC Insight Grant applications, noting that “[r]ather than a failure, a resubmission might actually present an advantage for savvy applicants who can use the extra space to highlight both the strengths of their article and their willingness to recognize their flaws and take steps to address them” (2022, p. 7).
To support you in revising your application, I consulted with four grants proposal experts: Gareth Corry, research partner in the college of health sciences at the University of Alberta; Julie Croskill, research grants manager at McMaster University; Sharon Marsh, health research development officer at the University of British Columbia; and Shanna Pritchard, research funding manager, health & life sciences, University of Toronto. They shared the following recommendations:
1. There’s no single, correct way to organize your response
I asked these grants experts if they have a particular structure or format that they recommend for this module. In response, they emphasized that, because each module in each application is tailored to the specific reviewer comments it received, there’s no standard format for the “response to previous reviews.” You might choose to respond first to comments from one reviewer and then to comments from another, to organize your response by the order in which they are addressed in your application (e.g. objectives, background, lit review, methods, knowledge-sharing, then budget), or to categorize the feedback received into broad themes.
“Looking back at some funded resubmissions from our institution,” Dr. Corry told me, “categorizing by theme appears to be the most common way of organizing the responses. That said, I think it’s fine to address the feedback reviewer-by-reviewer if that is a more effective way of communicating the response.”
2. Build on identified strengths
In CIHR applications, your reviewers will have access to your previous reviews, but you can’t be assured that they will spend a lot of time reviewing those. “It can’t hurt to point out that the previous reviews saw positives in your proposal,” advises Dr. Marsh – especially if you’re able to amplify these positives in your revised application by, for example, detailing your patient advisory committee’s expanded responsibilities, or showing how you’ve grown your team. If you have new data or additional relevant publications, highlight these as well. Doing so “brings focus to the strong points of your application,” adds Ms. Pritchard.
“Space permitting, it might also be a good idea to indicate the previous proposal’s scores (if they were good) and where the proposal ranked in the committee (if it ranked relatively high),” suggests Dr. Corry.
3. Engage deeply with criticism
There are two ways to engage with the constructive feedback you received. First, if you’re going to make a change based on a critique, you should thank your reviewers and refer to the section of the application that details your revisions. For example, you might write something like:
“We are grateful for Reviewer 1’s positive evaluation of our literature review. In response to their observation that we did not engage with [X], we have incorporated [X] into our literature review. We have also provided a clear explanation of how our [Y] differs from [X], thereby strengthening [some specific feature] of our project.”
And you’ll definitely want to address all the significant critiques you receive. As Dr. Marsh notes, “It is definitely commented on by reviewers if they feel previous reviews were not addressed and can therefore be reflected in the feasibility score.” If you’re short on space, advises Dr. Croskill, “prioritize the accepted feedback from most to least significant.”
4. Express gratitude for your reviewers’ input
It’s a good idea for you to explicitly thank your reviewers for the time, care, and effort they brought to your previous application. Reviewers dedicate substantial amounts of their limited time to reviewing, considering, and scoring your application, and it’s appropriate to acknowledge that.
5. … Even if last round’s reviewer got it wrong
If previous reviewers misunderstood some aspect of your previous proposal, you can – carefully, respectfully – clarify these misinterpretations, and point to the moments in your revised application in which you have improved how you have expressed your plans based on this previous misreading. In this situation “you should diplomatically re-state your case, preferably with supporting evidence or references,” suggests Dr. Corry.
It should go without saying, but you simply can’t imply that previous reviewers weren’t competent – and not just because the same person might be reading your application again this year. There’s a good chance that your reviewer will perceive a lack of courtesy on your part as an affront to a process in which they are investing a lot of time and care, so an attack on a previous reviewer may, by extension, be perceived as an attack on your current reader. Even if your previous reviewer made an error in their appraisal of your work, you should take an appreciative tone in your response.
And you will need to revise your proposal to clarify the portion that was misunderstood, advises Dr. Croskill: “Keep in mind that if a previous reviewer identified this aspect of the proposal as problematic, it is likely that another reviewer may do the same. As the proposal should be a stand-alone document, you should clarify in your proposal why you have designed the project the way you have.”
It can be frustrating to engage with reviewer feedback, especially if you feel that the response you’ve received is disingenuous, overly critical or misguided. A few years ago, I recommended a six-step process for a R&R for a journal article, and you can follow a similar process for a grant proposal.
But remember, too, that Tri-Council reviewers are working within a tight funding climate and receive large numbers of applications. So, instead of getting angry with your reviewer, consider instead shifting your anger to the political decision-makers whom haven’t sufficiently grown the pools of funding available for researchers in Canada, and then funneling that feeling towards some political action of your choice, such as writing to your MP or supporting the activities of the Canadian Consortium for Research. Your last application may have been good enough in a different funding climate.