Surely none of us have been completely unaffected by the upheavals imposed by the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. From the optimism of the New Year, with a bold new decade full of promise, potential and progress ahead of us we have had to adapt, both professionally and personally, to an entirely new set of circumstances that have demanded flexibility, ingenuity and persistence. But the work of AICR is too important to hit [pause] until this is all over. Life goes on. Unfortunately, cancer goes on. And progress cannot wait.
AICR has certainly had upheavals; during the Stay at Home orders we worked entirely remotely. The annual research conferences that we typically attend were cancelled or were presented as “virtual conferences.” We even had to postpone our own 2020 Annual Research Conference until November 2021 to ensure the health and safety of our staff and participants. However, some changes we could not accept. Fundamentally, AICR is dedicated to research and despite other organizations postponing their grant applications mechanisms, we decided that if we could make our Grant Program work, we must.
Last week we conducted our annual Grant Review Panel meeting; for the first time ever, this meeting was held entirely online. Ordinarily, this meeting is conducted in-person with 16-18 members of the AICR Grant Review Panel visiting our headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. The panel then spends two days in intense (but highly collegial) discussion to judge each application and decide which are the highest quality, most impactful and, ultimately, most deserving of funding. Recreating this online was a bit of a leap of faith, but the collective enthusiasm of the Panel and the support of the team at AICR gave us confidence that it was possible.
The whole application and review process takes almost a year. It begins with a call for applications in December, the competitive Letters of Intent are due at the end of January, selected applications are invited in March to submit full applications that are due in mid-May, the review panel meeting is held in August and the new grants are awarded in early October.
This year, we received almost 150 letters of intent from which the 58 best were invited to submit a full application. The topics of the full applications determine the composition of the Grant Review Panel, each of whom is an expert in research related to diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer risk and outcomes. These experts have some hard work to do before the meeting though, reading, judging, scoring and providing detailed written feedback for applicants. This process ensures that even if applicants are not among those selected for funding, they benefit from the collective expertise of the review panel to improve their application for the following year.
So, given the complexity and intensity of the Grant Panel Meeting, working out how to ensure the same high standards of scientific rigor, quality of discussions and feedback to applicants meant changing the review process and adapting to the new reality. This year the Grant Review Panel was chaired by Dr. Richard Eckert from the University of Maryland and co-chaired by Dr Linda Cook from the University of New Mexico. Instead of two days, we spread the meeting over a three-day period to reduce reviewer fatigue. The meeting took place on August 10-12, 2020 and we are pleased to say that it was a huge success! Despite not being able to meet face-to-face, more than 20 reviewers were able to meet using a virtual meeting platform to discuss and vote on the 58 excellent grants received during this year’s submission process. From these votes, we are able to pull a short list of the most competitive grants in our pipeline and, at the end of 2020, will be able to fund those that have the greatest potential to make an impact on the field of cancer prevention and survivorship.
While the global pandemic has certainly caused widespread disruptions in our day-to-day life, AICR’s commitment to funding lifesaving cancer research has not faltered. Our grant program has contributed more than $109 million to cancer research over the past three decades. And we will be adding to that by funding the best and most innovative grants from this year’s applications.