The biomedical research community goes bananas for economic stimulus grants from NIH.

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April 29 2009 2:49 PM

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.

Amanda Schaffer Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer is a science and medical columnist for Slate.

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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.)

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