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By Salvatore Salamone

July 11, 2002 |  Last year, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research awarded 57 grants worth nearly $17 million, but the process of deciding who should get them was extremely tortuous.

Grant applications were mailed in, photocopied, and mailed to members of individual grant review committees, which were composed of international groups of 10 or more scientists. The reviewers rated the applications and sent back a score for each proposal.

The scores were tallied by the foundation; top-scoring applications were reviewed and scored again at a final review committee meeting. The committee members had to bring hard copies of the top applications, which ranged from 10 to 100 or more pages each, to the meeting.

In order to improve the process this time around, the foundation has teamed with collaborative software firm Business Engine in an effort to improve the research project funding process.

“The [Michael J. Fox Foundation] wanted to take a 21st century approach to improve this process,” says John O’Neil, chairman and CEO of Business Engine. (O’Neil’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease; his interest in understanding the disease led him to the foundation.)

The foundation will use Business Engine Network, a Web-based project management collaboration application, to improve the grant application and review process.

With Business Engine Network, the foundation has a private exchange portal that allows internal staff and outside members, such as grant applicants, advisors, and award recipients, to work together more efficiently, says Deborah W. Brooks, executive director of the foundation.

Business Engine Network offers a secure place where documents can be e-mailed, tracked, routed, and managed. When a new grant is to be awarded, the foundation can collect all of the candidates’ proposals in one place. Foundation members can know the status of any grant at any time.

The foundation recently piloted the application and is now moving into production. Before the move to Business Engine Network, the Michael J. Fox Foundation, like many philanthropic groups, relied on outdated technology and the labor of volunteers to get work done.

Some medical funding groups have tried other ways to speed grant-funded research.

The Waterford Project, an AIDS research group (see Accelerating the Fight Against AIDS, May 2002 Bio-IT World, page 38), uses a broadband Internet-based collaborative environment to conduct quick peer reviews instead of reviewing individual submittals from scratch. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals for research grants. Those wishing to be considered for a grant must submit a letter of inquiry to the organization as an initial filtering step. 

Increasing Efficiency

By moving from a paper-based system to a Web-based project management system, the Michael J. Fox Foundation is looking for the following improvements to its grant review process:

·        Streamline the grant review process

 ·        Eliminate the photocopying of applications

 ·        Reduce the amount of material sent by mail

 ·        Offload manual tasks from volunteer experts

 ·        Provide real-time status information about grants

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