NIH Challenge Grants


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.

* * *

[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.

Comments

  1. says

    One of my friends was admonishing me yesterday for not submitting a Challenge Grant application and thought I was exaggerating about the 20-30K applications and the stupifyingly poor paylines that will likely occur … he’s under the misguided notion that nobody would both to apply for these awards and that he was in with a healthy chance. Ha!

  2. says

    I’m wondering if it will be the same shit with the administrative supplements… any advice on that front?

  3. says

    That’s roughly what I predicted when this bullshit program was announced. Moreover, it was obvious from the first that the review process would be wholly inadequate to permit meaningful ranking — funding will be arbitrary and/or political. I didn’t fucking bother and I’m glad that I didn’t waste my fucking time.

  4. says

    I guess one thing that could change the success rate of all grants coming out of NIH and NSF would be to reduce the amount each awardee gets. In Canada, NSERC has a success rate of 70% but the average award is only $30,000. In the US, the average NIH (R01) grant is $359,030 but the success rate is 16.3, while for NSF the success rate is 20% and the average grant is $140,000.

    A recent paper (Gordon and Poulin 2009) suggested an alternative strategy, which being the Canadian socialist that I am, I completely favour. To truly support “overcoming challenges” and “innovative research”, they suggest the best policy is to partition the total funding into peer review funding and baseline funds. The baseline funds allot some minimal amount to go to all faculty members who ask for funding.

    This will reduce some of the administrative costs. This study found, at least in Canada, that the cost of rejection was $40,000 per application rejected, which exceeds the cost of just giving a baseline amt of $30,000 to all science and engineering faculty in Canada (estimated at 9000).

    A quote from the article,

    “Granting agencies are superfluous middlemen for ordinary grants such as NSERC’s Discovery Grants. These attempts to guide the uncontrollable nature of discovery in science end up suppressing discovery and innovation. Many advances come from lone scientists off in the intellectual frontier, who will not be appreciated or understood by peers until they have a chance to test and prove or disprove their
    ideas. That takes distributing the available money equitably, a willingness to take the risks this entails, and an understanding that the benefits of unfettered research far exceed those risks. “

  5. says

    Study section members are being warned that in addition to the regular grants (and competing supplement apps) we are getting (now-ish) we should expect an additional load of Challenge foofraw to land on us some unstated interval between now (ish) and the actual meetings.

    Not. Happy.

  6. bean-mom says

    “ill-thought-out pieces of shit 99% of these challenge apps are–”

    Physioprof, based on the Challenge Grants that I’ve seen and what I know of how others have been slapped together… yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty apt description.

  7. says

    “ill-thought-out pieces of shit 99% of these challenge apps are–”

    Physioprof, based on the Challenge Grants that I’ve seen and what I know of how others have been slapped together… yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty apt description.
    Oops…forgot to say great post! Looking forward to your next one.

  8. qaz says

    The really interesting thing to see about the Challenge grants will be how many of them are actually viable in the sense that they are not “ill-thought-out pieces of sh*t”. If only 1% of the Challenge grants are real, then it’s ok to only fund 1% of them. The problem with the current NIH/NSF grant system is that only 10% of R01s are funded but much much more than 10% are really good science.

    I’m going to be really interested to see what the institutes do with the extra $7B they haven’t allocated yet. That’s a lot of money. And those Challenge grants will be sitting in the system, ripe for the picking.

    PS. GirlPostDoc – The two problems with the Canadian system are (1) that $30,000 isn’t enough to run a biomed lab on and (2) American universities, not being socialist, will just expand to add more scientists to take the free money. Some peer review system needs to be in place to keep the riff-raff out. What I recommend is a complex entry, but really simple keep-going program. (Grant review similar to what we have now to get your first grant or to return after a hiatus, but then a very easy review each five years [basically show papers that you did – if they’re good, then here’s another five years of money].)

  9. says

    Sorry, can’t feel sorry for NIH grant writers at these odds. The $10 billion dollars allocated for additional biomedical research is 10 times more than the annual research dollars allocated for agricultural research. Until medicine finds a cure for starvation, I’d like to see a bit more parity, not by bringing down biomedical research, but by people demanding that there be substantial increases in agricultural research.

  10. says

    @Qaz
    Yes I realize $30000 isn’t enough to run a lab but this is just a baseline that all faculty get. There would still be competitive grants. As for keeping out the riff raff, the assumption is that faculty hiring processes and peer review in journals is a way of keeping the quality of the scientists and the science high. Ahh…we can hope.

  11. qaz says

    GirlPostDoc says –

    “There would still be competitive grants.”

    But then you have the same problem we started with. We would still need to waste our time writing grants and still need to spend that $40k/rejected-grant anyway. All that would happen would be we’d each get an extra $30k. Cool, but not really a solution.

    “As for keeping out the riff raff, the assumption is that faculty hiring processes and peer review in journals is a way of keeping the quality of the scientists and the science high. Ahh…we can hope.”

    An optimist! Of course, faculty hiring processes don’t have any problem with hiring extra faculty due to the conflict of interest that they would bring money into the university. (At my university [BigStateResearchU], when the budget crisis hit hard a few years ago, the secret plan was to hire 200 new faculty each of whom would get two R01s, bringing $100M new dollars into the university. We were told to keep it secret because no one would ever guess that secret plan.)

  12. says

    I’m going to be really interested to see what the institutes do with the extra $7B they haven’t allocated yet. That’s a lot of money. And those Challenge grants will be sitting in the system, ripe for the picking.

    Many ICs have already explained what they plan to do. For example, NINDS plans to spend the majority of its money on already scored, but unfunded, regular research grants between the payline and 25 %ile, and most of the rest on supplements to existing R01s.

  13. disgusted says

    I don’t usually speak in these terms, but in the spirit of this blog, these challenge grants, and grant supplements as well, are a fucking monumental waste of financial and other resources – inadequate review that will fund lots of fucking bad science and a fucking enormous amount of time wasted applying for challenge grants by investigators who were pressured into applying by administrators, despite the extraordinarily long odds. I hope the next head of NIH cleans out the upper echelons of OER and gets rid of the fucking idiots who developed the plans for spending stimulus funds.

  14. BikeMonkey says

    Right, disgusted. ’cause scientists had so many good ideas of how to respond to the stimulus that actually understood there are Congresspeeps to satisfy.

    Hah.

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