Success in research funding requires savvy approach

April 1, 2007

Many European academic radiologists and radiological institutions express interest in receiving grants from the European Union. Radiology has historically enjoyed a good share of R&D funding from the EU's framework programs.

Many European academic radiologists and radiological institutions express interest in receiving grants from the European Union. Radiology has historically enjoyed a good share of R&D funding from the EU's framework programs. During the second framework program from 1986 to 1990, when PACS research was a hot topic, radiology received 15% of the total medical budget. This share dropped in the next funding cycle, though, when radiology received a tenth of the previous figure.

Organizations such as the European Association of Radiology and the European Congress of Radiology were blamed for this cut in financial support. In reality, I believe it was actually interdepartmental competition and negative evaluations from colleagues that caused the reduction. It should also be pointed out that high-ranking officials at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) have expressed surprise that they receive so few grant applications from leading European radiological institutions.

The funding sources within the EU, in the European Commission, and each of the different Directorate-Generals have complex and ever-changing structures. Radiological projects could potentially be funded from at least three sources and probably many more. The Research Directorate, the IT Directorate, and Directorate H (nuclear energy) could all fund projects within radiology. This complexity and the overlap between different areas can be seen in the breakdown of funding for the fourth framework program (see table). Note also the relative sums.

The 15 areas of interest supported during the period 1994 to 1998 were changed into 23 key actions for the fifth framework program, which spanned 1998 to 2002. In 2001, EU politicians opted to replace these 23 actions with seven thematic priorities for the next program. The budget for these priorities within the sixth framework program, which ran from 2002 to 2006, was two-thirds of the total available. The seventh framework program, which has just launched, keeps these same seven thematic priorities and adds two more (see accompanying story).

I have personal experience evaluating grant applications for framework funding, performing annual evaluations of grant recipients (both onsite and via the Internet), and applying for grants myself. My most memorable experience has to be when I arrived in Brussels as one of hundreds of evaluators and heard the Information Society Technologies leadership announce that I was to chair their entire evaluation. The buzzword that year was transparency. I was consequently permitted to enter secure parts of their computer systems and study the function and techniques of the evaluation. Very interesting but not at all transparent!

APPLICATION PROCESS

Funding application forms that are intended for peer review generally contain sections for an anonymous scientific summary, a detailed project description, and a detailed breakdown of costs. The paperwork is initially analyzed by clerks at the different directorates involved. Any deviation from the application instructions will result in the application being excluded from evaluation. The most common error in my experience is that details included in the anonymous part inadvertently reveal where the application has come from. Applicants may have referred, for example, to a publication from their own institution.

APPLICATION HURDLES

For applications that pass this first hurdle, the anonymous section will be distributed to evaluators who are supposed to assess the project's scientific merits. These evaluators represent many different aspects of European life that may or may not involve science. In most instances, at least one of the evaluation team of three to five individuals will have a scientific background.

Many applicants will have spent most of their time preparing the open scientific part of their application, where the project is described in detail. Yet in more than 50% of cases (sometimes as much as 80%), this document will not be opened by the evaluators at all. This is the case if the anonymous summary did not receive sufficiently high grades.

We used a five-point scale when grading first the anonymous section on funding applications and then the complete application. Grades three, four, and five were deemed to be good. An average grade of three or above on the anonymous section would mean that the open parts of the application would be evaluated. Where evaluators differed markedly in their assessment, an arbitrator would try to obtain consensus.

FINAL ROUND

For the final round of evaluation, all aspects of the applications are assessed. Different elements are weighted differently, though, from program to program. One aspect that I saw many applicants fail to address was their project's potential economic benefit.

But I have also seen applicants who were granted EU funding and then failed to carry out the plans for product development that were included on the initial application. By this stage, they would have received 90% of their funding, which is nonreturnable. The final 10% could still be withheld, though, if evaluators considered that some aspects of the project had not been fulfilled.

Once all evaluations are finalized, projects are listed in order of their point score. The sums of money requested by each applicant are added together, and a threshold drawn according to the total budget. Those above the line will receive funding; those below will not. Comments made during the peer-review process may be used by clerks during subsequent negotiations with applicants. The clerks may request that minor aspects of the project be adjusted, and the grant is then reduced to an "appropriate" level.

My own opinion of this process can be summed up as follows:

  • European radiological organizations should encourage as many radiologists as possible to become involved with the peer-review process.

  • Prospective applicants should take care to follow the correct format when putting an application together (or hire a company to handle the form-filling process) and ensure that the anonymous section is both truly anonymous and completely convincing to a layperson.

  • Blue sky radiological research projects may have less chance of getting EU funding than projects with an obvious economic benefit, but applicants may still have a chance of financial support from the U.S. NIH.

PROF. RINGERTZ is chair of the board at the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization, Linkoping University Hospital in Sweden, and professor emeritus at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Editor's note: If you or your department/institution has benefited from EU framework research funding, DI Europe would be interested to hear from you. Please contact us at di-europe@btconnect.com.