For an Autism Research Funder, a Quest to Connect the Dots

For scientists who depend on foundations to fund their research, the grant application process is reliably gruesome: difficult, time-consuming and competitive. It's only slightly easier for the funders who have to sift through hundreds of applications and decide which to award. Take the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI), which recently kicked off its funding cycle for 2016 with the announcement of requests for applications for Pilot and Research awards. In a recent year, SFARI received 400 letters of intent for each RFA. 

Even a deep-pocketed foundation like the one James and Marilyn Simons have built has a limit at the ATM. "In a single recent year, LOI requests totaled over $300 million, but our budget for new grants was only around $18 million," SFARI reported. "It would be great if SFARI could fund all of thembut that is unfortunately not possible."

SFARI has been one of the big-name funders of autism research since Simons established it a decade ago, and there's been real progress to show for it. Last summer, for example, we reported on the discovery by a SFARI-supported Columbia University neurobiology researcher of a protein that may play a major role in people with autism. It was a substantial advance, not only for basic research, but also because the work suggested a possible avenue of drug treatment for study. But that's just the study that got the big publicity— Simons-funded autism researchers have published nearly 100 journal articles so far in 2015, which is consistent with the rate of the previous few years.

As SFARI noted, the start of the new funding cycle demonstrates the central problem faced by funders of medical research. On one hand, you want to be open to novel, blue-sky ideas that have the potential to revolutionize understanding in a field. But you also want to keep the focus on promising science and clinical treatments that have track records, particularly in areas like autism, where effective therapies are desperately needed.

Even SFARI can't explain every nuance of its application review process. And it doesn't want to—it wants to be surprised by novel insights and approaches to the problem of autism. But it has to make some tough choices. Among the general guidelines SFARI developed for the coming year's application cycle is a desire to connect the dots from previous advances in autism research.

"Given recent advances on many fronts, the time seems ripe to bridge different levels of understanding in a push for a more coherent picture of autism," SFARI said. "This will involve connecting insights from genes to circuits to behavior, so we especially encourage grants with this broad outlook." But that's just one of the scientific priorities SFARI has set out for the coming year.

Their deadline for letters of intent for 2016 applications is October 9, so the clock is ticking. SFARl will be considering applications for Pilot study awards, small-scale projects for early stage projects and ideas, and particularly investigators new to the field. The larger research awards are intended to support investigators and research avenues with longer track records.

Applicants can learn more about SFARI's scientific priorities and decision-making process for 2016 here.