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Grant Reviews, Part One: Introduction to the Review Process


Twilight marks the end of another working day in the city. Couples stroll hand-in-hand toward cafés, bars, and restaurants, laughing as they melt into the night. You stand, heart pumping, perspiring, and bleary eyed as you watch the FedEx van pull away and round a corner. Your grant application is on its way!

For many postdoctoral scientists and junior faculty, applying for grants and awards is their first exposure to the administrative and financial worlds of scientific bureaucracy. In some cases the hours spent preparing a proposal culminate in Woody Allen-esque feelings of uncertainty, doubt, and despair regarding the fate of the application.

There is some cause for concern, because applications are intensely scrutinized. However, understanding the review process may lessen anxiety attacks when you finally do send off your beloved proposal. Grant-giving agencies strive to promote excellent research in specific subject areas. If you can convince them that your ideas match theirs, and you describe a sound project that will answer questions and help improve the understanding of the subject, you stand a very good chance of being supported. But you first need to know who's who in the grant-giving community and what they do.

Who's the Big Spender?

Money, and the potential lack of it, is usually a source of worry for everyone involved in academic research. Preliminary estimates for 1998 indicate that academic institutions in the United States received more than $17 billion for research and development (R&D) from the government and industry. Despite this investment and economic boom (a surplus of $5 billion is estimated next year), the amount of funding requested by scientists who submit grant applications far exceeds these financial resources.

The three main areas of R&D (basic research, applied research, and development) are funded by many different agencies. According to preliminary figures derived from the National Science Foundation's Division of Science Resources Studies (NSF/SRS), national expenditures in 1998 show that industry invested more than $143 billion, representing 60% of the entire R&D national budget. Federal sources contributed less than half that amount, about $66 billion.

The government still gives a larger proportion to academia than industry does. The NSF/SRS Federal Funds for Research and Development surveys for 1998 estimate federal contributions to universities and colleges to total more than $15 billion, which is almost 60% of all research funds that academic institutions received that year. The industrial investment by comparison was smaller, estimated to be only $2 billion, or 7% of all funds.

The total financial support awarded to universities and colleges by these different sectors, through individual grants, fellowships, and institutional allowances, was more than $25 billion in 1998. It apparently is still not enough: the National Institutes of Health (NIH) typically receives an astounding 40,000 applications from candidates each year, all vying for a share of federal dollars.

Where Does the Money Come From?

The federal government, industry, voluntary health organizations, and private foundations represent the core funders of biomedical research in the academic community. Grant-awarding authorities however are run like businesses. "Grant-making is not charity," says Cheryl New, president of Polaris Corp., a consulting company offering advice for grant-seekers. "A lot of grant-makers want to attract very good research projects," she explains. "It's an investment, which is why they're so picky and competitive."

Each agency has specific business-like criteria that are used to assess proposals. NIH uses perhaps one of the most intricate guidelines for peer review, around which many other organizations structure their own review process.

More Than a Lottery

Quality research enhances the reputation of grant-giving agencies; consequently, they enforce high standards when evaluating applications and are looking for proposals that demonstrate competence, purpose, and understanding. The criteria used to make a favorable review decision encompass more than the scientific and technical merits of your proposal. Factors such as those below figure heavily when weighing up your particular application:

  • financial state of the funding agency

  • the relevancy of your proposal to the agency

  • the responsibilities of financing existing grants

  • the number and type of proposals received

Show Me the (Grant) Money

All researchers have to dive into the grant pool at some point, but few know to come up consistently with pearls. If you are knowledgeable about the grant process, you can help ensure you get a slice of the billion-dollar pie.

Helpful hints include submitting cover letters that suggest reviewers and budget choices, maintaining contact with program officers, and writing proposals that are clear and concise. A criticism that many reviewers have is that applications aren't very exciting. "Enthusiasm can be the difference between two superb applications," discloses T. J. Koerner, a scientific program director who, along with other officers and directors, coordinates all review activities at the American Cancer Society. Indifferent proposals are often the undoing of many applications.

Do Your Homework

So who's funding what? It's not enough to only know the agencies that award a particular type of grant; you should be aware of the rules and regulations that come along with an award because there may be certain obligations that must be fulfilled. There are also differences in the stipends that are given for fellowships and the maximum funding levels allowed for research grants between funding organizations, so do your homework before you invest too much time in preparing an application to an inappropriate organization.

Reviewing the Reviewers

Decide which funder you want to apply to and find out everything you need to know about their review process. How do they decide who gets funded? What can you do to improve your chances? Who's involved in reading your grant? Is it fair? How can you find out what's going on? Next week, we'll bring you answers and advice for some of these questions. Hold on to your application forms--starting with the NIH, the review process of different funding agencies comes under the scrutiny of Next Wave!

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