Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Inside Stem Cell Funding: The Cost of Making a Grant

How much does it cost to give away $230 million? Something more than $173,000 or about $12,000 for each of the 14 awards in the recent disease team round from the California stem cell agency.

Those are conservative figures based on a document posted Sunday on the CIRM Web site. The report said it could have cost up to $280,000 to approve all the grants in the disease team round if the new “PreApp” review had not been in place. That figure would have climbed to $300,000 or so if you add in about $20,000 for the cost of the CIRM directors' meeting. (We have also added $20,000 to the $152,500 figure reported for PreApp disease team process).

We say our calculations are conservative because the $20,000 figure was reported several years ago, and it is not clear whether it includes all travel and meeting expenses for the directors and staff. The calculations also do not include interest expense, which would perhaps double the total cost of each grant. Interestingly, the debt financing of research makes CIRM grants much more costly to taxpayers than NIH grants.

The main point, however, of the CIRM PreApp report dealt with a staff recommendation that the process be continued in the future. The excellent, 10-page document covered nearly all the bases on the PreApp process, including comments from reviewers, applicants, staff and more. CIRM directors will consider the recommendation to continue the process at their meeting tomorrow and Thursday.

What is missing is an analysis of whether the process removes the CIRM directors, who legally have final say on grants, even further from the approval process. Already, reviewers make the de facto decisions on grants. Directors almost never overturn positive or negative decisions by reviewers. CIRM staff, however, probably made an overt decision not to even dip a toe into that sensitive area.

Here are some of the other conclusions from the report, in addition to cost savings, concerning the virtues of PreApp:
  • It “encouraged many new successful applicants – more than 50% of applicants had never previously applied for a CIRM grant.”
  • Several reviewers “indicated that the overall quality of applications reviewed after the PreApp process was better than without PreApp.”
  • Most applicants (87 percent), when given a choice between limiting the number of applications submitted per institution and an open submission of PreApps, preferred the PreApp process.
The pre-screening process was begun about a year ago to deal with problems handling large numbers of applications. Indeed, CIRM was swamped by more than 200 applications in one round several years ago. Handling those kinds of numbers can require more than one meeting of the grant review group, whose scientist members are all from out of state. Beyond the expense, the travel time required for four meetings a year places a professional burden on reviewers.

Here is how the PreApp process works. Each initial proposal is assigned to three external reviewers, who receive electronic copies of the proposals. No meeting of the external reviewers is held, and they do not see each other's reviews. Following the external review, CIRM science officers evaluate the proposals. A CIRM review meeting is then held with attendance limited to appropriate science officers, review officers, legal staff and the president of CIRM, Alan Trounson.

According to CIRM, the proposals are “ordered according to the level of enthusiasm across all reviewers with those having a unanimous recommendation to invite on top and a unanimous recommendation not to invite at the bottom.”

CIRM said,
“The PreApps were considered and discussed taking into account any discrepancies among reviewers. For each application, the science officers took a majority vote to invite or not invite the applicant to submit a full application. The CIRM President and CIRM CSO (chief scientific officer)do not participate in the vote unless the Science Officers are at a tie.”
The report is a forthright and clear explanation of the PreApp process that should be required reading for all potential applicants. It also could serve as a model for other background information on all items on the CIRM directors' agendas.

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