2018 Pilot and Research Award applications: The review process


This blog provides insight into the application and review process for SFARI’s 2018 Pilot and Research Award request for applications (RFA). We hope it will be helpful in preparing your application.

The LOI stage

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

All applicants are required to submit a letter of intent (LOI). These are short, one-page statements that are intended to save time — for applicants and SFARI science team members — compared with the effort required for full applications. In fact, we have decided this year to shorten LOIs even further from past years—we feel that a single-page description of specific aims, including rationale and significance, is sufficient for the SFARI staff to make an initial decision on the suitability of a proposal for full review.

At the LOI stage, we read applications to determine their compatibility with SFARI’s mission and current funding priorities, their overall scientific excellence and their fit within our existing portfolio of funded projects. 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, Pam Feliciano, Brigitta Gundersen, Alan Packer, Julia Sommer, John Spiro and Paul Wang, with additional advice from our former scientific director Gerald Fischbach. We occasionally seek advice from outside experts as well.

In the past few years, SFARI has received roughly 300-350 LOIs for each annual RFA. In a recent year, LOI requests totaled over $146 million, but our budget for new grants was around $15 million. We know it can be challenging to describe work in one page, 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, in the last few years, it has been roughly a third 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, which is an eight-page proposal detailing planned experiments. Full applications are sent out for peer review to 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. While almost all full applications are sent for external review, we do reserve the right to reject full applications prior to external review — this is most likely to occur when the work proposed in the full application differs significantly in focus or scope from the project described in the LOI.

Reviewers are asked to first submit written comments on applications, after which 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 the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. Conceptually related proposals are discussed in batches in order to facilitate direct comparisons. All members are present for discussion of all proposals — except, of course, when potential conflicts of interest exist.

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 of proposals before the scientific review meeting, they are not asked to prepare formal remarks for the applicants, nor do their comments incorporate verbal discussions that took place during the review meeting.

Returning investigators and percent effort

We have always been enthusiastic about bringing into the field investigators who have a strong track record in another research area and can offer a fresh approach to autism research. 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 percentage of Principal Investigator effort, we expect the Investigator to commit to a level of effort that reflects a leading role in the project.

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 or 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. 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 fund SFARI Explorer Awards. Applications for Explorer Awards are accepted throughout the year on a rolling basis, are for a duration of one year and are capped at $80,000 in total 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 for funding an unfunded Pilot/Research Award application superficially repackaged as an Explorer Award.


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. Applicants are welcome to submit revised versions of unsuccessful proposals in future RFAs, hopefully having addressed scientific issues raised during previous review. Note, however, that our review panel will change from year to year, so it is not advisable to spend too much space in future proposals responding to specific remarks from past reviewers; focus should instead be on improving the science based on the feedback you received.

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