America’s Got Science Talent

The biomedical research community goes bananas for $200 million in stimulus funding.

President Obama is bullish on science funding as a way to revive the economy. The stimulus package passed in February included big bucks to jump-start biomedical research: $10.4 billion in new funding for the National Institutes of Health, an effective 34 percent increase in its budget. In theory, health-related work is an easy, uncontroversial place to pour dollars. But the prospect of such a sudden and unexpected bounty has shaken the slow-moving world of research and whipped scientists into a near-paralytic frenzy.

In the last couple of months, the lure of stimulus funding has aroused such a carnival-esque atmosphere that many biomedical scientists have ceased doing much actual research. These scientists already rely on government grants, of course, especially from the National Institutes of Health. But the standard funding process is slow, bureaucratic, and almost cruelly transparent: Researchers know what the rules are and, generally, what their odds are of success. The stimulus-related bonanza is another story. Between this spring and next fall, the government will review and approve thousands of applications for billions of dollars in new grants. This comes at a moment when grant money has been in relatively short supply, and researchers are desperate.

The grant-writing mania is palpable across academic and medical institutions. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for instance, faculty members normally spend about 50 percent of their time working on grants, according to Glen Gaulton, the school’s Chief Scientific Officer. (This number rose substantially during the Bush years, he said, as NIH funding flattened out.) He estimates that in March and April, however, faculty members have spent more like 75 percent to 90 percent of their time going after stimulus dollars.

The lottery mentality has been especially acute when it comes to the new NIH Challenge Grants, which promise, in total, at least $200 million to 200 or more researchers. (Applications were due Monday.) Although the Challenge Grants represent only a small portion of stimulus-related NIH dollars, they’ve caused a disproportionate buzz. The stated purpose of the Challenge Grants is to jump-start “biomedical and behavioral research” that focuses on “specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation or research methods that would benefit from an influx of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways.” (The NIH is spending other stimulus dollars on supplements to existing grants, further peer-reviewed grants to projects thought likely to make progress within two years, and investments in buildings and equipment, among other things.) Since no one knew, at least initially, how many others were applying or what the odds of success were, a sort of wild optimism—that it might be possible to throw something together faster than competitors and edge them out—took hold, especially among many less-established scientists. Meetings were postponed, articles and experiments delayed. “In my lab, people stopped doing anything smart,” a biology researcher in New Jersey told me. (Most of the half-dozen researchers I spoke with declined to talk on the record, for fear of jeopardizing their applications.)

Frenetic optimism seems to have come in fits and starts, though. Immediately after the Challenge Grants were announced, “I got seven e-mails asking me to collaborate on proposals,” said a medical researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital. None of them panned out, mainly because it’s hard to put together a new team so quickly. Still, large numbers of scientists did follow through. And, as with the lottery, the more people buy in, the lower anyone’s chances of winning. To cite a few numbers: The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and Washington University said that they were submitting roughly 400, 300, and 300 Challenge Grant applications, respectively. Each said that this was about three times the number it generally submitted for a regular NIH deadline for investigator-initiated grants. Since the NIH plans to fund roughly 200 Challenge Grants nationally, the odds of winning one will surely end up lower than they are for more traditional NIH funding.

Still, young scientists may see the Challenge Grants as the most accessible piece of the pie, since applicants need not have NIH funding already, nor must they tangle with regular NIH funding mechanisms. But the game may nevertheless be rigged in favor of big labs with long-standing NIH connections. Such groups tend to have more resources to throw at grant-writing, especially under manic, last-minute conditions. The application process itself has tended to stoke these fears: Grant proposals are supposed to address a set of predefined “Challenge Areas,” within which the NIH lists some very specific “High Priority Topics.” Some examples: “accelerated aging in treated vs. untreated HIV/ AIDS,” “ethical issues associated with electronic sharing of health information,” and “prevention of otitis media,” or middle ear infection. To a young applicant, these look a bit like de facto earmarks, drawn up with particular scientists in mind. (Many have combed the topic lists to see where their work might fit in. This has involved a lot of all-nighters and an “almost comedic reshaping of what people do,” said the New Jersey biologist.) As a result, the competition has started to look something like America’s Got Talent—if Bob Dylan, Beyoncé, and Bono were allowed to compete.

Another kicker is that Challenge Grant funds must be spent within two years, with no option for renewal. This too has fueled some hand-wringing and disillusionment among the applicants. Most projects take months to get started even after they are funded; they can take years to generate results substantial enough to win further support. The strict two-year limit is just “throwing money at a bunch of unsustainable new things,” a genetics researcher told me. (“We specifically ask that researchers only submit applications that have a high likelihood that there will be accomplishments within this time period,” the NIH told me in an e-mail.)

Now that the application deadline for Challenge Grants has passed, researchers will surely be trying to get onboard with other stimulus-related projects—hooking up, say, with colleagues who’ve applied for funding supplements or other grants. In any case, the pressure’s on to establish their research programs quickly before all this new money dries up.