Inside Simons Foundation's Autism Pilot and Research Awards

Each fall, the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) announces an RFA for its prestigious Pilot Awards and Research Awards. (See Simons Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) SFARI receives about 30% — or some $75 million — of the Simons Foundation's budget and makes lots of awards each year. It doesn't blow its wad on a handful of hotshot researchers, but rather spreads the love around to as many worthy projects as it catches wind of. So if you're looking to get high mileage from a few thousand dollars (though SFARI grants occasionally soar into the millions), SFARI's Pilot and Research Awards are definitely worth pursuing. (Read SFARI Director Louis Reichardt's IP profile.)

Pilot Awards are billed as exploratory grants given to researchers who want to conduct a specific, risky essay into the neurological roots of autism. These awards run up to $125,000 per year for two years and cover indirect expenses as well as lab materials and equipment. Although the Simons Foundation is notoriously secretive about its grant recipients overall, it does give out the Pilot Awards to a wide array of schools and research institutions. SFARI especially encourages researchers working in fields tangential to autism to apply for the Pilot Award.

Research Awards are for scientists with "demonstrated expertise" in autism and neurological research. The awards usually fund initiatives with an annual budget of up to $250,000 for up to three years, but in some cases, exceptional projects with annual budgets of up to $350,000 are considered. Beware, though: The higher the budget, the harder SFARI's scientific advisory board will look at a proposal. One recent awardee was Steven Peterson, PhD, of Washington State University. Peterson proposes using resting state functional connectivity MRIs (fcMRIs) to gain new insights into simplex autism. Another recipient was Andrew Chess, MD, of Massachusetts General Hospital. Chess is studying DNA polymorphisms and their implications for gene regulation regarding autism.