The agency has already moved to whittle down the number of potential applicants by requiring the institutions involved to certify that the letters of intent were filed by principal investigators. One veteran stem cell scientist, who is not affected by the certification call, said the requirement has left "fair numbers of angry and anxious people."
The certification will elminate some, perhaps many applications from less senior scientists, despite CIRM's intention to encourage younger researchers.
The requirement for a letter of certification was not mentioned in the initial instructions for the letters of intent. The certification form that was posted on CIRM's web site was created on Sept. 19, four days after the deadline for the letters of intent.
In response to a series of questions from the California Stem Cell Report, Dale Carlson, chief communications officer for CIRM, said,
"The certification form was promulgated after the LOIs(letters of intent) came in, to clarify the qualifications necessary to apply for either grant (PI must be an independent investigator, full-time, on-site, etc.). It may eliminate some full applications from some who filed LOIs but aren't qualified for grants. It's common to require written confirmation of portions of a grant application. I haven't heard of any complaints."However, it is clear that some folks are disappointed and feel as if the rules were changed in the middle of the game.
The scientist who discussed this issue with the California Stem Cell Report asked not to be named for a number of reasons. We understand that position. For us, it is enough to say that CIRM plays a vast role in the funding of research, and no prospective applicants are likely to want to appear to be grousing about its conduct. Anonymity of sources, however, always raises a flag. In this case, the individual we spoke with is well respected in the field and has had considerable experience with grant reviews, conducting them for the NIH.
Here is what we learned during our discussions, which dealt primarily with the SEED grants, which attracted 280 scientists. CIRM says the grants, which are scheduled to be voted on by the Oversight Committee in February, are aimed at bringing in "new ideas and new investigators."
Many of the scientists who filed letters of intent will be disappointed, we were told. Many aren't qualified under the terms of the certification. A good part of the problem is the classification of reseach scientists at many institutions as non-faculty. Instead they carry titles such as research professional or staff scientist. The letter of certification asks institutions to certify that an applicant holds a "faculty-level position," among other things.
The fundamental problem is the size of the potential applicant pool. The scientist compared it to an NIH experience in which the number of applications was far smaller but the number of reviewers much, much larger. Even if the number of CIRM grant applications is reduced by half, it is still too large for the 15 scientific grant reviewers.
We asked CIRM about the workload, assuming ultimately 200 applications with about two hours spent on each grant by each of CIRM's scientific reviewers. By law, as we understand it, each reviewer in the CIRM grants program must examine each application. That amounts to 400 hours or 10 "normal" work weeks for each scientist, who already has a full plate with his or her own work. Is that a reasonable estimate, we asked CIRM last Monday. If not what is? We have not yet had a response on that matter and others, such as whether it is fair to impose what appears to be a requirement that was not laid out in the original request for letters. We have indications that a response may be coming at some point. We will carry it when it arrives.
The scientist we talked to did not have a solution to the workload issue or how to fairly screen out some of those who filed letters of intent. But it is clear that fixing the number of reviewers in state law is a limiting factor, to put it mildly. It would be useful to be able to revise such minutia without going to a vote of the people, which is what is currently required for a change.
CIRM reviewers are all from out-of-state and cannot apply for CIRM grants. Although reviewers can learn from the reviewing process, our scientist said that it is a "great burden" to be a grant reviewer, either for CIRM or the NIH. Most do it out of an "irrational sense of altruism."
Let us know about what you think about this issue. Click on the word "comments" below to express your opinion. It can be done anonymously. Google, which hosts this blog, has set up anonymous comments in such a fashion that not even we can determine the names of those who use the "anonymous" feature.
Here is a link to the certification form and the application instructions. Sphere: Related Content