Funding Science

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Scientific advancement requires money, and lots of it. Without science funding, discoveries go, well, undiscovered. Diseases remain uncured, healthcare practices stagnate and health outcomes aren’t measured.

Funding for scientific research has been an important issue to me throughout my career. I now serve as the associate director for scientific research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Sensory Motor Performance Program, which relies on research funding, and as the principal of Brain Bleu, an organization that helps nonprofit foundations that fund research to strategize. I've also worked with research funding from the federal funding perspective during my time with the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

Now, as a blogger for SiS, I'd like to share a little about what I've learned with you. I believe a better understanding of how research is financed will help us to be good stewards of research funding, whether we’re applying to move research forward as scientists burning the midnight oil in cluttered laboratories, whether we choose to lobby our representatives on Capitol Hill for more funding, or whether we participate in grass-roots movements such as walk-a-thons supporting nonprofit foundations in their efforts.

So, how is research funded? Research is funded by the government, nonprofit foundations and private companies. In this post, I'll concentrate on the government side. Government agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) receive big budgets and a lot of responsibility for determining what we study and where.

For example, the NIH invests more than $29 billion annually in medical research. More than 80% of this is spent on almost 50,000 scientist-initiated projects supporting more than 325,000 researchers at 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and around the world. This means, for example, that scientists who study pediatric cancer send proposals to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) of the NIH to be reviewed by panels of experts on fixed terms.

These experts are fellow scientists are chosen by NCI for their years of experience, publication records, and overall scientific reputation. In this way, fellow scientists act as consultants helping the NIH determine (1) whether the proposed research investigates an intriguing and important question, (2) whether the applicant is using the most appropriate methods available such as current techniques in DNA analysis, (3) whether the applicant is academically and experientially prepared to take on the proposed project and (4) whether the applicant is surrounded by the appropriate resources. A phenomenal researcher with a great idea but without a strong academic environment and resources such as access to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology or enough patients to study is like a painter without a paintbrush.

These experts or scientific reviewers, as they're called read, write lengthy critiques, discuss and rank proposals in order of most to least-ready for funding providing feedback to applicants so they can improve their ideas and resubmit their proposals for funding. This is a rigorous review process resulting in approximately 14% of the proposals that are reviewed being funded. Of course, it helps if an applicant has a strong history of success. Is shows s/he is good at their job. However, each individual proposal is examined for its merit in light of current findings in the applicant’s laboratory and publications from fellow scientists around the globe.

Scientific Review is the gold standard of determining what gets funded. Other federal agencies use similar processes compared to the NIH. The Office of Naval Research uses scientific reviewers on an ad hoc basis whereas agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) use source selection teams to review incoming proposals. The difference here is that source selection teams also bring in experts in business management and finance to make sure that each budget is appropriate and the operating plans are optimal. This is critically important for multi-million dollar projects where small mistakes could result in big spending. Regardless of which agency, it is considered a record of accomplishment, honor, and responsibility to sit on a federal review board.

After any review, the leadership of the agency will examine the findings of the review panel and sign-off or approve their recommendations. Normally, this is exactly what happens. However, occasionally an agencies leadership will compare the approved topic areas with gaps in their portfolio or emerging priorities (i.e. current conflicts, effects Hurricane Katrina) to make sure they balance what those in the field believe is ripe for investigation and the need to be current and timely in multiple areas. Sometimes this means that a proposal in a high priority area but with a low score is given the opportunity to resubmit their proposal for review prior to the next cycle. Sometimes it means that the agency has to do something to generate interest in a particular field such as hold a State of the Science meeting in diabetes research or send out something called a special solicitation. A special solicitation is a call for proposals in a specific area of interest for which the agency has set aside money for. Just last month the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) of NIH sent out a call for proposals for Suicide Prevention in Emergency Departments. NIMH agency scientists believed that it was important to solicit research that seeks to standardize how ER staff members identify and treat high-risk suicidal individuals in the ER in light of recent publications that show 50 -70% of at-risk individuals who were given referrals for follow-up care did not attend appointments. Applicants are asked to propose interventions and approaches in the ER that show promise for improving attendance rates and reducing suicidal behavior.

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