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Brian Hofland, PhD

Brian Hofland, PhD
President, Research to Prevent Blindness

Brian Hofland, PhD, is the president of Research to Prevent Blindness, a nonprofit with a mission to preserve and restore vision by supporting research to develop treatments, preventives and cures for all conditions that damage and destroy sight. Within this mission, RPB has a commitment to grow and nurture a robust and diverse vision research community.

In an interview with ARVO, Brian discusses the various grants offered by RPB and offers advice to applicants on how to increase their success rate.

In 2013, RPB spent almost $12 million to support the vision community. What are some of the funding mechanisms offered by RPB?

We have two types of grants. First, we provide unrestricted grant support to departments of ophthalmology. That's because we care about the health of the vision research community, and we're proud of our track record of strengthening departments of ophthalmology over time. We've really helped to transform ophthalmology from a sub-specialty area to its own specialty.

We fund 50 departments of ophthalmology at $115,000 per year to each department. This money is at the discretion of the department chair. Typically the money is used to support investigators gathering preliminary data. Such data is important to researchers applying to the National Eye Institute or other NIH agencies where you're not competitive until you have preliminary results. Other ways the unrestricted money is used is to provide bridge funding,statistical analyses, equipment purchases for the entire department and sometimes to fund young investigators to go to research conferences.

The second type of grant is individual awards. In order to apply for our individual awards, applicants have to be in a department that is supported by RPB and nominated by their chair of ophthalmology.

Individual RPB grants are really investments in careers. They are available to young researchers, established researchers and senior investigators who are still active and actively mentoring anew generation of scientists. The proposed projects have to be valid and we look for high-risk/high-reward opportunities to generate breakthrough discoveries, but we are really investing in the kinds of people who we feel will make a difference and lead vision science to higher ground. The funding itself is flexible,which is rare and highly sought after and allows a researcher to pursue new findings as they occur.

Would you walk us through the application process?

We ask for written applications that are then evaluated through our two-stage peer-review process. The initial screening round incorporates leaders in the field of ophthalmology, and the final review round consists of a distinguished scientific advisory panel. RPB's Board of Trustees makes the final funding decisions. I do not have a vote in funding decisions.

What separates a funded application from one that doesn't succeed?

It's very competitive; we receive very good applications. It'snot that a funded application is good and a rejected application is bad; sometimes the differences are subtle. How clearly and effectively the ideas in the application are presented is one such difference.

Are you saying that how an application is presented - the clarity of the data and arguments made - affects funding decisions?

Yes, very much so. That's a point that many researchers don't really understand.

Every scientist needs to recognize that wherever they apply for funding, the review panel that's evaluating their application is likely to only consist of one or two experts who will truly understand the details of what is being proposed. The other panel members are intelligent scientists, but they may not be familiar with the particular science in the grant application. The researcher who is applying needs to make it easy for the one or two experts to sell the proposal to the rest of the panel.

That includes having what we call a really good index statement,which is a one or two sentence description of exactly what the proposal is about. You need to be able to explain why this research is important in the grand scheme of things, how it ties into other research that is going on and what difference it will ultimately make.

This point about communication is true on multiple levels, not only for a review panel. In terms of allocation of resources,researchers need to be able to give an "elevator speech" to their department chair, dean, provost, president, potential donors, etc. The ability to communicate your science - to make clear why it's important and how it's going to make a difference - is extremely important.

What are some common mistakes applicants make?

Some applications look like they've been thrown together at the last minute. These don't fair very well. It's important to create a timeline for the proposal development process. Prepare a good,close-to-final draft then send it out to some colleagues, including some who are not in your area of specialization, and ask if the proposal is clear in its objectives. Have enough time in your timeline to incorporate that feedback and improve the proposal.

Another issue is that we get applications from people for whom English is their second language. It becomes doubly important that someone works with you to ensure that the language is at a decent level where what you're communicating is understood. It's unfortunate, but there are some brilliant scientists that are hurt because people have a difficult time understanding what they'retrying to communicate in their proposals.

Can you give us a non-specific example of a good or bad application?

We had a proposal in the last couple of years for an individual award on a neuroscience topic related to brain mapping and the retina. It was from a talented young scientist with tremendous potential, but the significance of the research was not well stated by the applicant. At the initial screening level, the person almost got knocked out because the primary reviewer was annoyed at how wonky it was. The reviewer said, "I wasn't able to tell why this was at all important. It was really obtuse." Fortunately, the chair who had nominated the person had a really clear explanation in his letter, which someone else in the review panel pointed out. So the application made it through by the skin of its teeth and ultimately got funded.

Besides a one- or two-sentence summary statement of the application, what else do you commonly see in well-crafted proposals?

Some universities have a track record of applications that are very carefully put together and very clear. These departments put a lot of staff time into their proposals. If you have a good research coordinator helping with grant development, it often shows in the final application.

So having good institutional support - research coordinators,grants management staff - helps in crafting high-quality applications?

Not just the support from staff, but from other active researchers. It's a team effort. There is likely a research director that's looking at the application from a scientific perspective and is also very skilled in communicating areas of specialization to non-specialists. I'm sure the chair plays a role too. Often times I find the chair is very skilled because they'reused to talking to donors and lay people about why the science is important.

Do you have any final suggestions for applicants?

Effective communication is a very good skill to have. If you don't have it yourself, try to develop it.

A few rules of thumb that can't hurt and almost always help:

  • Everyone needs an editor; most of us are too close to our own work to see faults.  Let other people read your grant application - not your friends!
  • Build enough time into your application schedule to allow those people to give you feedback and for you to incorporate it - about a month.
  • Think about the perspective of your reviewer or the mission of the funding organization you're applying to; is your pitch aligned with their goals? If it is, make sure that you've made that clear,simply and directly.
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