Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Competing for Dollars: CIRM Examining Grant Ground Rules

The words are mind-numbingly dull: grant administration, programmatic score, appeals, pre-application. But they go to the lifeblood of scientific research – money.

And they are the topics of concern at a meeting next Wednesday of a key panel of the directors of California's $3 billion stem cell agency.

The directors' Science Subcommittee will then examine a substantial portion of the process in which directors decide which California scientists receive millions of dollars and others receive none. On the agenda are:

  • Longstanding concerns about dealing with researcher appeals on applications for stem cell research grants. 
  • The pre-application process, which weeds out proposals even before they get to the grant review group.
  • And a new concept that would create a “programmatic” grant application score from patient advocates sitting on the grant review panel.

It is not the first time CIRM directors have tackled these sorts of issues. Directors have long been troubled by attempts to reverse negative decisions by reviewers, who examine the requests for cash behind closed doors. The directors have final say on the applications but rarely overturn reviewer decisions.

However, in June, a record nine researchers filed extraordinary petitions to reverse reviewer actions. That amounted to about one-third of the rejected grants. Four of the petitions were successful. The directors were not entirely pleased at having to deal with the renewed pitches from researchers.

Freshly before CIRM directors is the concept of a programmatic score on applications in addition to the scientific score. The new score would be provided by the seven patient advocates on the 23-member grant review group.

CIRM directors sometimes refers to programmatic considerations in approving grants. The term is usually used in connection with the programs that the agency is trying to push. A specific definition of the term may exist on the CIRM Web site, but we have not been able to find it.

In response to a query, Jeff Sheehy, a patient advocate member of the board and chair of the Science Subcommittee, said the programmatic score proposal is only an idea at this point. No details have been worked out, which is the task of the subcommittee and staff. Noting that the concept did not originate with him, he said he did not expect the panel to act on the item at the meeting.

Sheehy, who also serves on the grant review group, said,
“There is no programmatic score right now. Grants receive a numerical scientific score, which is the average of the individual scores of the 15 scientist members of the Grants Working(review) Group.

“During programmatic review, a baseline 'quality' score is established, usually somewhere around 70. Then the group decides whether to move grants up or down based on programmatic considerations, which vary from RFA to RFA--although they are often based on disease representation. For example, zero Alzheimer's applications in the fundable range could lead to a motion to move an Alzheimer application up (usually this happens for application with a near fundable score) into the recommended for funding category.”
We have written more than once on the appeals and pre-application issues and have prepared a reading list for those who really want to dig into them. You can find the list here.

Persons interested in commenting on the proposals can email their comments to CIRM at Or they can listen in and comment live during the meeting at seven locations throughout California, including San Francisco, Palo Alto, Healdsburg, Pleasanton, Duarte and two in Irvine. You can find the specific locations on the meeting agenda.

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