2017 Pilot and Research Award applications: The review process

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This blog provides insight into our application and review process for SFARI Pilot and Research Awards. We hope it will be helpful in preparing your application.

The LOI stage

All applicants are required to submit a Letter of Intent (LOI). These are short, three-page statements that are intended to save time — for applicants and SFARI science team members — compared with the effort required for full applications.

Applicants should familiarize themselves with the two types of annual awards that we offer, Pilot Awards and Research Awards, and should carefully consider which option is more appropriate given the state of their science and the extent of preliminary data.

At the LOI stage, we read applications to determine their compatibility with SFARI’s mission and current funding priorities, their overall scientific excellence and whether they are complementary to or overlap with our existing portfolio of awards. Each LOI is read by at least two members of the SFARI science team, which includes our director, Louis Reichardt, plus Marta Benedetti, Wendy Chung, Alice Luo Clayton, Pamela Feliciano, Brigitta Gundersen, Alan Packer, Julia Sommer, John Spiro and Paul Wang, with additional advice from our former scientific director, Gerald Fischbach. In addition, final decisions involve discussions with all members of the scientific team. We occasionally seek advice from outside experts.

SFARI typically receives between 300-400 LOIs for each annual request for applications (RFA). We know it can be challenging to describe work in three pages, but if we feel an application is not likely to be competitive, we prefer to tell the applicant early, rather than after he or she has invested more effort. Although we have no fixed number of LOIs to move forward to the full application stage, for the past few years it has been roughly one-quarter of those received.

The full application stage

If an LOI passes the internal review stage described above, the investigator will be invited to submit a full application: an eight-page proposal detailing planned experiments. Full applications are sent out for peer review by a diverse group of widely respected scientists who evaluate the scientific merits of a proposal — including the study plan, investigators’ track records, quality of preliminary data, data-sharing plan and budget. After an initial electronic pre-review, in which referees submit written comments, we hold a two-day meeting to discuss the most competitive grants with the entire scientific review panel. At that meeting, referees present grant proposals, and together with the SFARI science team, debate strengths and weaknesses and then rescore each proposal. Conceptually related proposals are discussed in batches in order to facilitate direct comparisons. All science team members are present for the discussion of all proposals — except, of course, when potential conflicts of interest exist.

The referees and SFARI science team may suggest changes to the scope and budget of a grant application.

We try to give applicants whose proposals are not funded a summary of the reasons for the decision. However, we ask applicants to keep in mind that, although referees provide written assessments before the scientific review meeting, they are not asked to prepare formal remarks for the applicants that incorporate the verbal discussions during the meeting.

Percent effort

We seek applications from independent investigators who can devote a substantial portion of time to their SFARI project. Although we do not require a minimum Principal Investigator (PI) effort, we expect the PI to commit to a level of effort that reflects a leading role in the project.

New investigators

We have always been enthusiastic about bringing in investigators who have a strong track record in another research area and can offer a fresh approach to autism research.

Returning investigators

In general, we prioritize new grant applications and only in rare cases provide limited funding for renewal of three-year Research Awards. After three years of support, grantees are encouraged to seek continued funding from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies; when justified by exceptional progress, we will consider limited transitional funding. We will continue to welcome former grantees’ attendance at SFARI-sponsored meetings, workshops and other activities. We do encourage recipients of SFARI Pilot or Explorer Awards who have achieved success in their initial studies to apply for three-year Research Awards.

A note about budgets

Proposals are judged to some degree on whether the budgets are reasonable given the potential risks and rewards of the research (larger budgets raise the bar for funding and are subject to heightened scrutiny) and whether there is funding from other sources. At the full-application stage, we are especially vigilant about how specific aims overlap with other current or pending grants. Therefore, we expect applicants at this stage to provide us with specific aims as well as abstracts of all active and pending grants. We also work with successful applicants to adjust budgets after the review process.

Explorer Awards

In addition to our annual RFA cycle described above, we also have SFARI Explorer Awards. Applications for Explorer Awards are accepted throughout the year on a rolling basis, are for a duration of one year only, and are capped at $70,000 (including indirect costs).

Explorer Awards are intended to provide resources to support new projects proposing high-risk/high-reward experiments that strengthen hypotheses and lead to competitive applications for larger-scale funding from SFARI or other organizations. It should be noted that Explorer Awards should not be viewed simply as a ‘resubmission’ mechanism for an unfunded Pilot or Research Award. Although there are, of course, exceptions, we discourage and rarely consider an unfunded annual RFA proposal repackaged as an Explorer Award application.


We always welcome feedback about our decision-making process. The more specific the feedback, the more useful it is. “I can’t believe my grant didn’t get funded; you guys make lousy decisions” is less helpful than a reasoned critique of some of the criteria we have outlined above. We use your feedback to improve our review process, although you should not expect that we will change our decision on your proposal as a result of your feedback.

Also, please keep in mind that a negative decision this round is not a broad judgment about a laboratory’s quality of work or its potential for future SFARI funding.

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