For my readers who aren’t biomedical scientists, the National Institutes of Health–the US Govt agency that funds the vast majority of biological research in the US–was provided with $10 billion dollars additional funds (beyond their current $30 billion annual budget) from the so-called Economic Stimulus Package proposed by President Obama and implemented by Congress to be spent over the next two years. One of the mechanisms by which NIH is going to spend this money is through a grant program called the Challenge Grant.
The basic gist of the Challenge Grant program is as follows:
As part of the Recovery Act, the NIH invites, through this limited competition, NIH Challenge Grant (RC1) applications from domestic (United States) institutions/organizations proposing novel research in areas that address 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. This program is designed to support research in scientific areas identified by the Institutes and Centers, as described below.
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[This program] is designed to provide investigators with the opportunity to address [highly specific unique challenges selected from a long list] by addressing new avenues of research in defined areas where progress would produce a significant impact on biomedical or behavioral science and/or health research.
The best information we have suggests that ~30,000 applications for these grants have been submitted, and the NIH Office of the Director has already allocated Stimulus funds sufficient to make 200 awards. Those of you who are gambling men and women can see that those are not real good odds. It is also possible the individual institutes within the NIH (kidney institute, brain institute, heart institute, etc) will fund some additional Challenge Grants from the Stimulus funds they have already been allocated themselves to do with as they see fit.
The number of additional Challenge Grants that will be funded by individual institutes has been the subject of some discussion. Some have speculated that the individual institutes will fund ~1300 more, for a total of 1500, thus giving a success rate of 5%.
My own feeling is that no way are their going to be anywhere near 1500 challenge grants awarded. Many institutes have made no committments to funding any additional Challenge Grants, and when the institutes that do claim to intend to award a bunch of them actually see what slapped-together ill-thought-out pieces of shit 99% of these challenge apps are, they will change their tune.
This is because wise scientific program staff at the individual institutes probably understand quite well that great advances that “overcome challenges” in biomedical research are not made by identifying such challenges ahead of time and then “attacking” them. Rather, they are almost always made incidentally and fortuitously during the pursuit of ordinary science.
A wise participant in the discussion I alluded to above, however, points out the following:
But [overcoming challenges] sounds much better when speaking to Congress than “Funding Excellent Random Science and Hope Something Useful Comes Out of It”.
It will be very interesting to see how this Challenge shit all pans out.