by Erik Lontok
This is an inherent truth about research, and the most common response I heard from my principal investigators (PI) all through undergrad and graduate school – that even with the best of hypotheses, you can’t possibly know what the outcome will be until a study has been conducted. As we found out earlier this year, the same is true when funding research. In medical philanthropy, as in science, all you can you can do is plan ahead, think through every possibility, and prepare to be surprised.
During our 2016 grant cycle, a common statement we heard from applicants was: “Would you provide me with more information on how the process works?” Although we did our best provide an overview of the grant submission and review process, we knew that it would be an iterative exercise, tailored to the challenges of building a brand-new field of study around a poorly defined disease.
Now that research is underway, we’ve taken a moment to step back, assess the funding process, and evaluate our learnings. Following is a brief summary of that process, including the key criteria for successful applications:
- 40 LOI’s reviewed – Submitted letters of intent (LOI) were reviewed based on the strength of the hypothesis along with specific aims, research methods, and relevance of the proposed work to lipedema. Scientific merit was assessed through the relevance and feasibility of the work, as well as the applicant’s research tools, experience, and collaborative history.
- 28 researchers interviewed – Meritorious applicants were interviewed via videoconference and Powerpoint, wherein their proposal, research experience, interest in lipedema, relevant tools for the field, and collaborative potential were discussed. A key interview topic involved modification of the scope of the submitted LOI, either through learning about the types of collaborations that would enhance their work, or encouraging a focus on utilizing patient samples as the project’s model system.
- 22 applications invited – Submitted full applications included a greater expansion of specific aims, proposed alternate research approaches, defined project milestones, and a detailed budget. Application criteria included:
- Will this work define lipedema pathophysiology or advance our understanding of disease etiology?
- Might the work lead to the development of a diagnostic tool?
- Are the proposed methodology, study design and controls, clear and relevant to the project’s hypothesis?
- Does the project establish the dataset needed for externally funded applications?
- 16 projects awarded - The final decision point was assessment of the collaborative potential of the researcher and their proposed work. This was the most subjective component of our review process, but has now led to:
- A collaboration is under development with all three of our genetics-focused projects.
- Two co-located teams of surgeons and researchers.
- Initiation of a sample-sharing agreement with a clinical project and a diagnostic tool researcher.
- Eight additional collaborations.
Apart from refining the process itself, we also learned and collected data points about applicant scoring, such as:
- Applicants that could not succinctly state their hypothesis, or that struggled to articulate the relevance of their work to the challenges facing lipedema typically rated poorly.
- A feasible project plan with lofty, but achievable research goals scored well.
- Beyond scientific merit, the best applications involved researchers proposing and willing to participate in collaborations.
Allow me to end this blog with my PI’s most common response after showing them research data, “well that answers that – and now here are all the questions the answer raises. Get to it.”
And as we move into 2018, these are the questions we will be asking ourselves about our research program:
- How might we best foster productive collaborations?
- How do we balance the scientific freedom researchers need to succeed, with the goals and milestones put forth in applications?
- How can the foundation facilitate discussions about unpublished, preliminary work whilst protecting a grantee’s research and intellectual property?
- How might our current grantees and work engage equally talented and driven researchers into thinking about lipedema?
We will be sure to keep you posted as more data is generated. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions, and thank you for your continued interest and support.