A Look at Peer-Review Panels for Grants


Magic words for every nonprofit artist or scientific researcher are, “You got the grant.” Ever wonder how government and foundations choose who gets funded? Take a quick look at the peer-review process.

Government funding for the arts and science has been in place for multiple decades. Industries – especially science and the arts and humanities — have government grant funding as a key economic component. Yet the process of determining how the funding is allocated can be a bit of a mystery for those outside the field.

“The United States has depended to a very large degree upon ‘peer review’ to aid the government in making the difficult scientific and artistic judgments that … [determine whom] will receive limited governmental resources,” states the introduction of “Peer Review in Awarding Federal Grants in the Arts and Sciences,” an academic article published by Thomas O. McGarity in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal in 1994. McGarity, an administrative law expert at the University of Texas at Austin, explains that “a ‘peer review’ system of allocating government resources relies primarily upon the informed recommendations of experts in the relevant field of inquiry.”

This method of review and analysis for funding allocation has been around for over three centuries in the sciences, but is fairly new in the arts. When the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were established 50 years ago, government arts leaders adopted the peer-review process from science. Today, peer-review panels (more commonly referred to simply as “panels” by the field) are utilized by the arts agencies of all 56 states, territories, and the District of Columbia.

In general, the peer panels review the applications and provide evaluations to the governing body that makes the final decisions. The NEA gives an overview of the grant application and review process, as does the NEH. It’s not used solely by government alone, either; major arts foundations and other funders utilize the peer review process as well.

As with any process, achieving success depends upon the planning and best practices. Grantmakers in the Arts examined the issue with a webinar in 2014. Advice for staff who set up peer-review panels in the arts and humanities include:

  • Create a panel of diverse experts in terms of age, ethnic and cultural diversity, geography, gender, and varying artistic backgrounds (the NEA requires a “lay person” or non-artist to be on each panel);
  • Consider a mix of peer-review panel experience among the members, with some familiar to the process and others with fresh perspectives;
  • Evaluate the best size for the panel – some can be as small as three members, others quite larger – as well as the workload demands and number of applications to review;
  • Consider having a limit on the number of times a panelist can serve consecutively to encourage change and diversity year to year;
  • Look out for interpersonal dynamics of panelists that could impact the evaluation process – folks who have worked together closely before, dominating personalities, etc.
  • Establish very clear guidelines for the program, and direct the panel participants to adhere to them when evaluating the applications and not alternative intentions or goals;
  • Establish clear conflict-of-interest rules concerning applicants and their relationships with panelists, with a stated definition of conflict as well as a consideration of implied conflicts or bias – and state the actions to be taken if a conflict exists (typically the panelists will temporarily leave the panel discussion and not participate in adjudication of that application);
  • Remind the panel members to review the information provided in the applications, not an organization’s reputation or potential;
  • Clearly establish the rules concerning openness or anonymity of panelists, adherence to appropriate open-meeting rules and laws, procedures for attendance by public (if applicable), and a clearly stated appeals process; and
  • Have at least one staff member be very familiar with each application in case a peer-panel reviewer states an inaccuracy, especially after a long day of work.

Peer review and evaluation has been cited time and time again as an egalitarian process for difficult funding decisions, allowing for community members to participate in government and the decision-making process. With carefully selected panels, applications are evaluated for merit and feasibility by experts. McGarity’s analysis outlines potential vulnerabilities of the peer review process, but with attention and careful detail, the peer-review process can help agencies aim for transparency, equity, and accountability.

Quick shout-out to Paul Pietsch (research) and Sue Struve (communications) at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies for their assistance with this subject.

Mary Beth Barber is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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