How Parkinson’s Disease Researchers Get Funding for Their Work

Learn more about how Parkinson’s research grant proposals are created, from inception to submission to APDA

Every May, APDA’s Scientific Advisory Board  (SAB) meets to choose the research grants that APDA will fund in the upcoming fiscal year. APDA’s SAB is comprised of highly successful scientists with a broad range of backgrounds and expertise in all areas relevant to Parkinson’s disease (PD). The process by which the SAB selects the grants was discussed in a previous blog. But what happens before that?

How are research grant applications developed?

For most of our readers, the process by which an application for funding is developed by the researcher remains a mystery. How do scientists come up with an idea to study? What steps do they need to take before a proposal is submitted to APDA? Funding from the public makes this research possible and I thought it might help if you can better understand what goes into the process — so I am dedicating this blog to exploring some of these questions.

What awards does APDA fund?

APDA offers four types of financial awards (also called grants) to individual scientists (APDA also supports eight Centers for Advanced Research). The overarching theme of APDA’s grant-giving strategy is that of career building. We aim to invest in scientists who are either early in their career and/or new in their study of Parkinson’s in hopes that they will then dedicate their research career to this disease. In both these situations, the scientist is trying to get a new idea off the ground, and without a track record it can be hard to obtain funding. The APDA grant is the seed money that allows the recipients to generate preliminary data, and potentially launch an area of study. The research they can conduct with the APDA grant often gives them the more substantial data they need to obtain further funding from the government or other large institutions to continue their work.

Based on the training level, interests, and skill set of the applicant, they choose which award to apply for:

  • George C. Cotzias Memorial Fellowship George C. Cotzias, MD was a pathfinder in the pharmacology of brain function and in the treatment of PD with levodopa, who received critical funding from APDA back in the 1970s. This Fellowship, dedicated in his honor, is awarded over three years to a physician-scientist committed to establishing a career in research, teaching, and clinical care relevant to PD.
  • Post-Doctoral Fellowships are awarded to support post-doctoral researchers (those who just received their PhDs) who are working under the mentorship of a more senior scientist in the field of PD research.
  • Research Grants are awarded to support investigators in PD research. The SAB more favorably considers researchers who are new to the field of PD whether they are early in their career or switching from another field of study.
  • Diversity in Parkinson’s Disease Research Grant is awarded to support research scientists studying the health disparities and/or differences among under-studied PD communities.

The steps to creating a research grant proposal

Prior to developing a grant proposal (a request for funding), scientists will typically do the following:

  • Read and understand the current medical literature. In order to ask a new question that could reveal something new about Parkinson’s disease, a scientist first needs to read widely about what is already known.
  • Understand current scientific techniques needed to answer scientific questions. These techniques may include methods that probe biochemistry, cell biology, or genetics in a “wet lab” — a traditional bench setup in which scientists run experiments with biological reagents (if you’re picturing microscopes and test tubes, you’ve got it right). They may also include electrochemical techniques that probe cell circuitry. On the other hand, they may take place in a “dry lab” involving computer modeling of biological processes. Other scientific techniques that may be needed include tools of clinical trial development or epidemiologic research, such as surveys and database creation and analysis. Very importantly, the scientist will need to understand the limitations of the various techniques to know what they can and cannot demonstrate. Sometimes, a scientist develops a brand-new technique in order to probe a research question that can’t be addressed with current methods.
  • Once a scientist understands the background medical literature and what methods are available, he/she is then ready to develop research questions, which will define the hole(s) in our current knowledge that the research project hopes to fill. It takes a lot of intelligence, creativity, and experience to be able to devise ways of bridging the gap between what is known and what is not yet known.

Building a research proposal

A research proposal typically is composed of several sections:

  • Background – what is known already in the medical literature about the specific topic
  • Specific aims – statements that explain what the research project will attempt to achieve
  • Research design – the scientific methods to be used to reach the goals, including the limitations of the methods
  • Rationale, relevance, and impact – a discussion of why the research is relevant to Parkinson’s and how it will be impactful to people with PD
  • Biosketch – similar to a curriculum vitae (which is like a resume), which presents the applicant’s education and past contributions to science including published papers. APDA’s Post-doctoral Fellowship requires a biosketch from the applicant’s mentor as well
  • Letters of Reference – APDA’s Cotzias Fellowship and Post-doctoral Fellowship both require letters of reference from senior scientists who know the work of the applicant
  • Budget – a justification of how the money requested will be spent

The applicant submits these elements to APDA through our online grant management software. At that point, the SAB takes over and makes the decision about which Parkinson’s research proposals should receive funding from APDA.

Follow up

Once a grant is awarded, the recipient is required to give periodic progress reports to APDA to ensure that the work is being completed in a timely manner.

To get a sense of how the process of proposal development operates in practice, you can read the abbreviated summaries of the research proposals that APDA is currently funding.

Tips and Takeaways

  • A lot of work goes into the funding of Parkinson’s research, and the work begins well before a grant is awarded.
  • APDA offers four types of grants to individual scientists that aim to foster new ideas in PD research and help promote careers in PD research for those new to the field
  • Creating a grant proposal requires understanding the prior PD research, as well as understanding the available scientific techniques and methods and their limitations
  • A successful grant proposal revolves around a fundamental yet unanswered research question, as well as solid research goals that define what the project is attempting to achieve
  • To help us in our goal of funding the most promising scientists as they conduct PD research, please consider a donation to APDA

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