America's Got Science Talent
The biomedical research community goes bananas for $200 million in stimulus funding.
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.
Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.