Notes from a Day Spent Listening to Scientists Judging PDF Research Applications

Last Friday, March 16, was the occasion for reviewing applications for PDF’s International Research Grants program and Research Fellowships programs. Before us were some 30 proposals from some of the best young (and not-so-young) scientific investigators in the world.

As I sat there in the meeting as an observer, listening to the members of our scientific review committee as they made their comments and pronounced their judgments, I found myself scribbling notes on what seemed to be the principles on which they were basing their decisions. What they were saying, it seemed to me, said a lot about how we go about choosing the projects we will fund. Here are some of the ideas I picked up:

Relevance to Parkinson’s Disease. Every proposal that we fund – without exception — must show promise in its potential to advance our understanding of PD, or charting the path to its cure.

New Ideas, New Investigators. To maximize the leverage of the program, successful applications will be one of two kinds. One is the innovative pilot project that shows promise for leading to a larger-scale endeavor that will be eligible for funding from the NIH (drawing on PDF’s “leverage” function). The other is the Parkinson’s-related application from an exemplary scientist whose past contributions have been largely in areas other than Parkinson’s – and who could be inspired by means of the PDF grant to turn his or her attention to PD.

Demonstrating Results.
The renewal of an earlier award to the same scientist depends on the investigator’s ability to show “significant progress” since the first grant – that is, you don’t get a second grant if you can’t show that you used the first grant well.

Establishing Credibility. To make it through the grant review process, good ideas aren’t enough; the applicant needs to be able to demonstrate – both in his/her personal accomplishments and in the reputation of the lab in which the work will be done – a stellar track record in producing innovative and useful science.

Including Advocates in the Research Process.
The meeting included three members of Parkinson’s Advocates in Research (PAIR), a PDF program in which lay leaders in the PD community are prepared to take on a variety of roles advocating for clinical research. An example of their contribution came early in the day, when one of these advocates raised a question about the validity of animal models in Parkinson’s research, which generated a spirited exchange among the scientist members of the committee.

I hope you are as impressed as I am with this little vignette of PDF’s research culture!

I conclude with a quotation from a memo on the mission of the program from Dr. James Beck, who is our Director of Research Programs at PDF and staffs the grants review committee. In thanking the scientists in the room, he said, in effect: “The two groups that will benefit most from your decisions today are not even here. One is the world of talented young scientists whose work will be made possible through your efforts. The other is the community of almost one million in the U.S. who live with Parkinson’s. In behalf of these two communities, PDF thanks you!”

Amen, James.

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