Applying for Genome Canada funding: what to expect
Genome Canada funding is pretty amazing. While I am not sure exactly how much money they make available each year, I think it is safe to assume that it is a lot. They definitely received a $100.5 million commitment from government recently. If you work in the genomics realm, this seems to be (perhaps) THE holy grail for funding.
As the name implies, Genome Canada has a mandate to support, accelerate and diversify genomics research within Canada. The idea being that if they invest in genomic research now, Canada will reap the benefits later with respect to 'bioeconomic' growth. There are several funding opportunities offered each year, ranging in focus from health to society, to food security.
Recently, I was part of a team that submitted an application for an LSARP. What's that you ask. It's part of the Large Scale Applied Research Program; this year's emphasized agriculture, agri-food, fisheries and aquaculture. So, how does it work?
Our team waiting in the pre-review room with other applicant teams. Left to right: Steven Cross, me, Mark Flaherty, Tim Green, Laura Parfrey
Phase I: Request for applications
One or several people come up with an initial idea centred around the LSARP theme. These people will typically become the Principle Investigators (PIs - yes, you can have more than one). A brief pitch (Request for Applications) will be submitted to the respective Provincial genome centre. At this point a full team of applicants may or may not have been determined. The registration must be deemed 'eligible' for you to pass to the next phase.
We submitted our registration to Genome BC around August 2018. The registration provided a general idea of the specific theme we were targeting (i.e., aquaculture), what types of deliverables we would supply (e.g., resilient species in a changing environment), and what kind of benefits this would have for Canada (e.g., economic growth).
Phase II: Pre-application
A pre-application team is assembled to address the specific research themes identified for your project. During this phase your team works closely with with support teams from your Provincial genome centre. These support teams are invaluable!! The application team, and their genome centre support team, will work hard to write the pre-application, making sure that they obtain up-to-date quotes, secure the required co-funding, address the relevant GE3LS (socio-economic sections), and generally 'keep it together'.
Our pre-application was >30 pages long and comprised five research theme areas. Two components were 'pure research' into genomics. Two were GE3LS sections focused on socio-economic analyses. One was more data/sample collection focused. The pre-application was submitted around November 2018 and we were notified sometime in January that we had been selected to progress to a full application.
Phase III: Full application
Feedback on your pre-application is supplied. From our perspective this feedback was helpful. It highlighted areas that required more specific detail, clarity, less detail, or in some cases, some points we had not fully considered. It was not a generic "the proposal has merit" type of feedback.
Our full application was submitted in April. This was not the end though. In a way, this was just the beginning.
Phase IV: Review session practise
The Provincial genome centre begins working with your team even more intensely. They set up mock review sessions with consultants and generally grill your team on all the nitty-gritty details in preparation for the real review session where you will defend/explain/promote your proposal to a panel of expert reviewers. The Provincial genome centre also arranges all of your travel and accommodation for the review session. You are supplied with the names of the international experts who will sit on the review panel. You are encouraged to research these reviewers to better understand what types of questions they may ask you about your proposal. You receive coaching on what to do and what to bring - and of course what not to do. Everything from your 10 min presentation to the order in which you address questions is carefully orchestrated.
These sessions can leave you feeling simultaneously exhausted, exasperated and exhilarated. There were times that our team felt like we were falling behind, but the Genome BC group, to their immense credit, kept pushing us forward.
Phase V: The review committee
Finally! I bet you didn't think it was this involved or lengthy, did you?
Our review session was held in Calgary in late May. We were advised to arrive the day before. Our full application team comprised numerous researchers, stakeholders/industry partners and First Nations. However, only five of us were permitted to sit at the table and defend/explain the proposal.
Our team included:
Dr Laura Parfrey, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair at UBC, microbiomes
Dr Timothy Green, Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair at VIU, shellfish aquaculture & genetics
Dr Mark Flaherty, Professor at UVic, aquaculture & human geography
Dr Jasmine Janes, Assistant Professor at VIU, plant ecology & genomics
We stayed at the Marriott Downtown in Calgary. The following day we met with the some of the Genome BC members at a conference room and began final practise talks, Q&A's and general words of encouragement. This was also the first time that some of us had met in person!
By lunchtime I think we were all feeling a little nervous. After lunch, we were guided over to the Hyatt hotel where we waited with several other competing teams in a small conference room until it was our turn to go into the review session. The sessions are organized so that several applicant teams are reviewed at once by different panels of reviewers. We were one of (I think) 25 teams to make it to this stage. I can safely say that from the teams we did see, ours definitely had diversity. We had a balance of early and established career stages, ages and genders. The other teams, unsurprisingly, appeared to be more established researchers.
After an hour of sitting in the pre-event room, we were ushered toward our particular interview room. We didn't really see or speak to any of the teams that preceded us and each team in the pre-event room sort of stuck to themselves and their respective Genome Centre staff. We filed into the final room with our name placards in the order we had been told. In front of us we saw the panel of reviewers and the Chair of the panel. Behind them was another set of tables with some 'silent' observers from Genome Canada. To the right was a third set of tables where our Genome BC group sat with some observers from other Provincial genome centres.
Steve (co-PI with Tim) introduced each of us. The reviewers were not introduced to us. It saves time you see. Steve then gave an animated and persuasive 10 min research project overview. At this point questions from the review panel began. We had been instructed that Steve should answer each question first and then direct the reviewer to the appropriate team member for further detail. Responses were to be short (~90 sec.) but detailed. We were not to interrupt each other. We needed to remember to use the microphone!!
After 45 mins of questions we were excused. The questions, for our team, had focused mainly on clarification of team roles and the general workflow with respect to each project. The reviewers were not mean or arrogant, as some may think. They came across as genuinely interested in the ideas, sometimes they made helpful suggestions; overall it seemed they wanted to make sure they understood the nature and scope of the proposed work.
That was it. After all of the preparation and mock sessions it felt a little anti-climatic. We were quickly asked to leave. Remember, other teams were coming in and it would be unseemly for us to lock eyes across the hallway! (I should also point out that the Reviewers stayed in a separate hotel and were given a private dining room to ensure that they could not be influenced by any team.)
Our team post final review session. Look at those relieved faces!
Phase VI: The result
Apparently we will find out next week! Eeeeeek!