Grant review is difficult process

by Melanie Evans

The preparations began on a Friday. Dr. Greg Vercellotti cleared his calendar and his desk for the weekend.
Senior Associate Dean for Education in the Medical School, Vercellotti returned to his office at Owre Hall on Saturday and Sunday to finish his review of 100 National Institutes of Health applications stacked in the cardboard box waiting beneath his desk.
Vercellotti is one of 21 scientists who form an NIH “study section,” a peer review network for ranking the institutes’ funding proposals. His group, Hematology 2, is one of 119 that critique grants for a range of health science fields from brain disorders to virology.
The study sections form the backbone of the health agency’s $13.6 billion grant awards process. Finance from the health institute is considered the lifeblood of medical research endeavors at large higher education institutions. In 1997, University researchers received $1.25 million from the NIH.
Vercellotti flew to Bethesda, Md., Tuesday evening for two successive 12-hour days of deliberation. Sequestered for 48 hours, the scientists will argue, defend and deliberate the respective merits of the top proposals. Of the 100 applications up for an award, 20 to 30 of the grants will emerge from the marathon session funded.
Preparations for the tri-annual meetings review take their toll, he said.
“I gain weight,” Vercellotti said, laughing.
The sessions can turn contentious, he said. But a strong sense of camaraderie develops as the group argues and ranks the highly competitive grants for their significance, approach, and innovative qualities, as well as the environment and team assembled to conduct the research.
“We go out to dinner as a group, and any differences of opinion from the reviews are ironed out over a beer,” he said.
Group members leave the session when a conflict of interest arises, said Dr. Janet Cuca, NIH review policy and special projects coordinator.
A long-standing personal or professional difference, a recent working relationship, or a colleague’s application are all considered conflicts, she said.
Selection of section members rests on the scientists’ expertise, and their geographic and demographic diversity.
John Osborn, physiology professor in both the Medical School and the Department of Animal Science, just received an appointment to an NIH review section.
But he said his new role has not changed his perspective on the process. The reviewers, themselves scientists, evaluate the clarity, impact and scientific plausibility of the proposal.
Funding can sometimes be fickle, he said, as the cutting edge of research constantly evolves.
“Science, like anything else, follows trends and fads,” Osborn said. On numerous occasions highly qualified and well-trained scientists see their funds evaporate with a shift in interest.
The process can be tough, said James Koerner, a biochemistry professor, but the criticism is often valid and useful.
“If you’re faint of heart and you get shot down the first time, your future is not very bright,” he said. “Fundamentally, it is the best possible way to fund complex scientific projects.”
A self-described “small operator,” Koerner manages two grants from the health institute.
Over the course of his 35 years at the University financing from the institute has come and gone.
“You win some, you lose some,” he said.
Rejected applications are returned with criticisms. Working off those notes, Koerner revived and successfully resubmitted many of his applications.
The revisions are an opportunity to re-prioritize and clarify proposals, he said. “You’ve got to be willing to take a long look at yourself in the mirror and take these critiques seriously,” he said.
Norma Allewell, arts, science and engineering vice provost, agrees the grant-writing process is valuable.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to think creatively and critically about your work.”
Starting out as an assistant professor of biochemistry in the 1970s, the obvious source to turn to for funding was the NIH, she said.
Twenty years and 10 successful applications later, Allewell is a veteran grant-writer. She submits an annual review for her grant to study protein structure, and every three years re-submits her application for competitive review.
“When you finally get that phone call, or that letter, you have to pull yourself together and prepare to deal with whatever the answer is,” she said.
A favorable answer is liberating and exciting, she said. “It’s a major emotional high, you feel validated.”
The grants offer equal autonomy for researchers, said Allewell. “You get to run your own show.”