A collective sigh of relief and a true sense of accomplishment will be shared across the center once the cancer center support grant has been submitted. The clicking of the submit button to send the application on its way is the culmination of more than a year of hard work by all involved. A few days of well-earned rest is the first thing on many minds. But, the rest, as rejuvenating as it will be, is only short lived. Looming in September or October is a site visit that will culminate the full CCSG application process.
The Cancer Center’s program is the only extramural funding program of NIH that still includes on-site reviews of applicants. The process leading up to and the day of a site visit is a scripted endeavor, much akin to a tea ceremony. Two months prior to the grant submission date we provided descriptions of our research programs, shared resources, education and training initiatives, community outreach and engagement activities, and our clinical research practices to our program officer. This information was forwarded to the NCI Office of Referral, Review and Program Coordination, the NCI office responsible for managing site reviews. The office will use the provided information in the selection of site reviewers that will critically evaluate the application and the qualifications of our center to earn designation.
A site review will typically have anywhere from 12 to 18 expert reviewers from cancer centers across the country. The NCI Office of Cancer Centers will also have representation at the site visit that will include the office director, our program officer and at least two others from support units within the office, attending as observers. They have no influence on the site review outcome but will ensure the review is conducted based on established standards. We have already been in touch with the office of referral and provided 10 dates for them to select from for the visit. We anticipate knowing the site visit date even before the grant is submitted.
Experience has taught that a successful site visit is accomplished by a dedicated team and based on adherence to three P’s: Planning, Preparing and Practicing. Even before the submission we have started the planning phase and identified the critical elements necessary. These include the venue selection, transportation for the reviewers, initial drafting of the agenda for the day, a presentation template, posters to be displayed, a nimble copy center for reviewer notebooks, and food selection for the reviewers and those in attendance.
What is currently under development is the schedule of practices, practices and more practices; and, updating all the data we spent the last year collecting, confirming, validating and including in the grant submission. These data elements must be updated up to 60 days prior to the date of the site visit and beyond for pending grants and submitted manuscripts to show the strength and cohesiveness of the programs and their viability to prosper over the coming years. These updated data must be included in the notebooks prepared for the reviewers.
The day before the site visit, the UFHCC will set up the room and arrange of all the required elements for the day. The event for the reviewers begins around the same time that day with them arriving in Gainesville from around the country. The review team will meet well into the night to discuss the merits of our proposal and develop questions to be asked during the day. This is also a time when the Site Review Office (SRO) will communicate with the director and administrator to provide additional information requested by the site visit reviewers in helping to clarify any question.
After little sleep for all, the day itself will start with the reviewers being picked up and transported to the event location to arrive no later than 7:30 a.m. The formal program will begin sharply at 8 a.m. with a welcome and introductions of senior institutional leadership, who will give very brief presentations. The SRO will have the agenda out and each presentation with accompanying question and answer sessions will be strictly monitored to stay on time. The SRO or the chair of the site review committee have been known to sharply end sessions on presenters in order to stay on time and follow the schedule.
This is where the hours of practicing will come into play because all presenters will be rehearsed on their timing. The day will include a formal poster session and a separate review of the clinical research processes and activities of the Cancer Center, in addition to a break-out for an administrative review of the center. The poster session is the only opportunity for interaction with the reviewers through discussions with the presenters at the posters.
The review will end around 2 p.m. and the site reviewers will meet in a final closed session to discuss their assessment of the Cancer Center and whether all questions had been answered throughout the day. The director may be called back in to provide any additional information in order to address unanswered questions or to provide a specific point of clarification. Without advanced notice, the doors will open, and the SRO will announce the end of the site visit for us. The reviewers will then be transported back to their hotel and finish the day with a final discussion and vote by the entire panel to assess the merits of our Cancer Center and provide scores of those components reviewed.
It is not until the reviewers leave that we can begin to relax and congratulate all on a job well done, or commiserate over something that could have gone better. Either way, it is out of our hands at this point; but, we can take solace in accomplishing something never achieved at the University of Florida before – a successful CCSG application and an effective NCI site visit to UF. This is typically accomplished at a convenient establishment that has abundant quantities of adult beverages, food and a relaxing atmosphere.
Sometime in December we will receive what is called a “Draft Summary Statement.” This provides the initial critiques for all sections of the grant and our overall merit descriptor indicating how we scored. Receipt of this document starts the next chapter for UFHCC in its quest to become the next NCI-designated cancer center.