It is a fundamental principle of the Volkswagen Foundation and part of its self-image to make its funding decisions comprehensible and sustainable. This would be inconceivable without adequate procedures of peer review – an indispensable element of good foundation practice.
For the Foundation, external peer review is the most important instrument for ensuring the quality of its funding decisions. In this context, the transparency of the review process and the professionalism of all those involved in reviewing applications are of utmost importance to the Foundation.
In the following, we want to explain the process and practice of application review, as well as the expectations placed on the reviewers who support the Foundation.
Following an initial check to ensure that a research proposal meets the criteria of the respective call, the Foundation asks qualified experts, either individually or as members of panels, for an assessment that forms the basis for decision-making by the Board of Trustees or the Secretary General. Without these external experts, it would not be possible to carry out a serious review of the several hundred draft proposals and applications submitted to the Foundation every year – and we extend thanks to the approximately 500 volunteer reviewers, about a third of them from abroad, who support the Foundation in its review process!
When selecting reviewers, the Foundation not only looks for expertise, but also seeks to ensure that all forms of bias or partiality are excluded.
If a person from the circle of experts falls under any of the following criteria, this person will not be permitted to take part in the review of the application concerned:
- Personal ties (kinship, friendship) or conflicts between assessors and applicants
- Affiliation or impending transfer to the research institution in question
- Current or former career dependency
- Scientific collaboration (joint research projects, events, publications)
- Participation in a supervisory board/decision-making body of an applicant research institution.
- Direct competition
- Economic interests (own or related persons) in the grant application
Members of review panels are required not to submit own applications for funding for the duration of their activity as reviewers. If a proposal is submitted to the respective funding initiative, reviewers will leave the committee in question. This also applies if multiple applications are submitted from their direct scientific environment.
Notwithstanding, the Foundation realizes that it cannot know all circumstances that could give rise to partiality. It is therefore ultimately dependent on the reviewers themselves to report biases they may become aware of.
Rules of good practice
By acting as reviewers, the experts consulted by the Foundation recognize the following rules of good practice as binding. If it is not possible to give a vote in accordance with these rules, they must decline to participate in the review – which they may do without giving reasons.
- The review follows the rules of good scientific practice. All information provided is truthful and is not intended to infringe the intellectual property of others or to interfere with their research activities.
- Agreeing to act as a reviewer entails being responsible for assessing essential aspects of the application. Should experts consulted do not consider themselves responsible, they shall notify the Foundation.
- If reviewers feel biased in any way, they likewise withdraw from the review process.
- In addition to scientific considerations, the favorable or unfavorable recommendation takes into account the requirements, objectives, and restrictions applicable in the respective funding initiative according to the "Information for Applicants".
- Reviewers treat the applications submitted to them confidentially and do not make the contents known to third parties.
The applications submitted are first reviewed by the administrative office to determine whether they formally meet the requirements described in the "Information for Applicants". If this is the case, an external review is carried out by experts closely related to the field.
The Foundation strives to make its decisions on the basis of the broadest possible peer review. In doing so, it must also take into account the workload involved for the experts it consults. For this reason, reviewers are generally asked to participate in a written procedure on individual applications no more than twice a year. The composition of review panels is regularly checked for their professional fit with the submitted applications as well as for other aspects such as internationality and diversity, and modified accordingly. This also helps to prevent a narrowing of focus on the part of review panels.
Feedback on peer-reviewed applications
The respective design of the selection process is determined according to the requirements of the individual funding initiatives and applications. The Foundation takes care to ensure that the workload, especially on the part of applicants and reviewers, remains proportionate and that applicants are informed as quickly as possible whether their application has been successful or not. One consequence of these measures is that individual written reviews remain the exception. Instead, funding recommendations are often made by reviewers within the framework of review committees, following discussion of the shortlisted applications. These discussions and decisions are recorded in minutes by the administrative office. Since these minutes include, among other things, direct comparisons with other submitted proposals, they cannot be shared with applicants, irrespective of whether they have been rejected or proposed for approval. The Volkswagen Foundation reserves the right not to provide substantive feedback. Especially in the case of decisions regarding outline procedures, where high numbers of applications are to be expected, feedback is generally not possible. In the case of applications that have been rejected in a staggered selection procedure or as part of a more complex application process, it may be possible to receive more detailed feedback by telephone from the respective program manager.
Further development of assessment procedures
The Volkswagen Foundation sees itself as an important driving force in the (German) research scene. In addition to its role as a promoter of innovative approaches and topics in research and teaching, the Foundation is also experimenting with application and selection procedures to make them more efficient and equitable. These include, for example, the use of lottery procedures in decision-making ("Experiment!", 2017-2020) or video sketches in selection procedures ("Momentum", since 2022). These pilot projects are monitored in order to share and discuss the findings with interested institutions in Germany and abroad.