How to review interdisciplinary grants? HFSPO has 32 years experience

The Human Frontiers Science Program funds high risk and potentially high gain interdisciplinary projects to advance frontier research in the life sciences. This post, from its Director of Research Grants, explains how their review process identifies these visionary and transformative ideas.
How to review interdisciplinary grants? HFSPO has 32 years experience

The International Human Frontiers Science Program Organization (HFSPO), through its International Human Frontiers Science Program (HFSP), awards Research Grants to interdisciplinary international teams (preferably intercontinental) for doing cutting-edge life science projects, and Postdoctoral Fellows who either embark on a new research field within the life sciences or move from an outside discipline – physics, chemistry, engineering, to name a few – into the life sciences.

When I joined the International Human Frontiers Science Program Organization (HFSPO) almost two years ago, the organization was not a stranger to me. Ten years ago, when I was working as a professor at a Swedish Biology department, I had applied for one of the grants myself, together with a colleague at a medical faculty in the USA – a physicist and an immunologist. We had not met before but already writing the grant was an inspiring experience, helped by our fully complementary backgrounds and skills. The ambitious project required close collaboration and all of those complementarily different skills and, while we knew exactly what we were aiming for, we were not sure it would all work out. Already at that time I was wondering how the review process for such interdisciplinary and risky projects would be organized at HFSPO.

My experience from chairing a review committee at the Swedish Research Council had taught me that biologists tend to have a hard time appreciating and evaluating fairly cross-disciplinary projects and, more so, the achievements and quality of publications of physicists and engineers. Even though such projects were encouraged, their fair review seemed really difficult. However, the HFSP does exactly that: evaluating and awarding and supporting interdisciplinary – and on top of it, intercontinental – projects.

So, I was thrilled when I got the position of Director of Research Grants at HFSPO and finally entered their headquarters in Strasbourg. The pillars of the HFSP – as any other – peer review process are the review committees. While a majority of national research funding agencies have multiple committees, each reviewing the applications in a specific discipline in the life sciences, all HFSP Research Grant applications are seen by one single review committee, and a second one evaluates all Postdoctoral Fellowships applications.

Committee members are selected not only as absolute top scientists doing cutting-edge research themselves, they also have experience of crossing disciplinary borders and they are visionaries, distinguishing off-the-shelf from frontier projects. Maybe most importantly, however, they don’t only represent life science disciplines from virology and neurosciences to biochemistry and biophysics, but also mathematics, computer sciences, structural chemistry, and engineering. Their shared knowledge allows appreciation of the ‘frontier-ness’ in basically any life science topic.

The HFSP has a two-step selection process. Only about 1015% of the 700900 Letters of Intent that are submitted and evaluated each year make it to the Full Proposal stage, and only 34 % are finally funded (3040% of Full Proposals are awarded – you can read about the 2020 and past awardees on the HFSPO Annual Reports). Each of them has the potential to be transformative, extending research frontiers, with many bearing high risk but also high potential gain.

That is a second area where HFSP differs from many other funders, which usually like feasibility, avoid high risk, and fund excellent scientists to continue doing excellent work along the same lines for a long period of their careers. Of course, this approach is important, and the ongoing work makes it relatively easy to predict whether the next step will be successful, with a low risk of failure.

HFSP, by contrast, considers risk as positive, if the applicants are aware of it and have mitigation plans. HFSP expects visionary ideas rather than preliminary results, and reviewers are aware of it. They evaluate the potential of the applicants to combine their skills, method repertoire and knowledge in the interdisciplinary collaboration. Exactly how they do it is difficult to describe: it is only possible because they are visionaries themselves and use the discussions in the committee meetings to exchange their very different viewpoints. At the first step of the selection process, the Review Committee first selects the most promising applications, which are then seen by a second, smaller committee that consists of very experienced reviewers. At the stage of Full Proposals, for each application, up to six different expert reviewers are asked to provide detailed comments which then help the committee members in taking their decision.

The entire HFSP review process takes a year and allows selection of the projects with the highest potential to make a difference in the life sciences. It is a lot of work for Review Committee members, but they also tell us that they find the reading and discussing of the applications for frontier projects in the interdisciplinary committee highly inspiring. They definitely like to come to Strasbourg for the committee meeting, and real, physical meetings are best suited for the intense discussions. During the pandemic, having remote meetings has been working unexpectedly well, but also has added to the stress of the reviewers, as it is so much harder to stay fully focused, especially as committee members reside in all time zones between New Zealand and the American west coast. They all do an excellent job, to serve a process that aims to support the most frontier, interdisciplinary and international life science projects, and it is a pleasure to contribute to this process. I am very proud to be able to help with the selection of the best interdisciplinary projects, which take high risk on the path to potentially high outcomes.

Almut Kelber, PhD, Director of Research Grants, HFSPO.


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