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Better Science with Stimulus

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With the passage of several of the major grant deadlines for National Institutes of Health programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the waiting game begins.

Of course, the funding opportunity drawing the most attention has been the Challenge Grant (RC1) program, which drew more than 20,000 submissions and overwhelmed the Center for Scientific Review. By comparison, CSR handled 27,360 R01 applications in all of 2008. These new applications for two-year grants of up to $1 million were prepared in response to some 900 Challenge Topics — enough to permit the program to be as investigator-initiated as possible while providing NIH a means to track and report the broad areas and more focused topics being addressed with ARRA funding.

As described in the May 2009 issue of Peer Review Notes, CSR Director Toni Scarpa opted for a two-stage approach, sending out all applications to at least three reviewers for mail reviews due back June 5. These 60,000-plus critiques will in turn be ranked by CSR and distributed to editorial review board members for preliminary scoring and discussion in July. The 20,000-plus summary statements are targeted for completion in early August, with funding decisions by September.

The $64,000 question is how responsible funding decisions can be made on so many applications in such a compressed time frame, particularly for a new grant mechanism using an untried application format combined with non-traditional criteria and priorities applied during the maiden voyage of a completely revamped review process. While public law dictates that NIH must use scientific peer review in making awards, ARRA-related funding decisions will give weight to additional criteria not usually taken into consideration by our friends in Bethesda.

Different priorities

Indeed, as reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, NIH plans to "tweak its science-based distribution guidelines to ensure the largess some measure of geographic parity." This means spreading the wealth to less well endowed states in the South and Midwest, among others.

Specifically, applicants from states that are eligible for the Institutional Development Award program should have an edge. These states have an NIH success rate (number of applications awarded versus number of applications approved) of less than 20 percent or received less than an average of $120 million per year during the past four years. This select club currently includes Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

A similar program at the National Science Foundation — Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research — adds Alabama, Tennessee, and the US Virgin Islands to the list of regions with funding disparities.

Aside from this unprecedented effort to ensure geographic parity, what other non-science considerations might be taken into account when making funding decisions? The National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities clearly states that it will only fund proposals that:

  • Preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery
  • Assist those most impacted by the recession
  • Provide investments to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health

President Obama issued a memo giving the same marching orders to agency heads by recommending funding of projects that will:

  • "(i) deliver programmatic results;
  • (ii) achieve economic stimulus by optimizing economic activity and the number of jobs created or saved in relation to the Federal dollars obligated;
  • (iii) achieve long-term public benefits …; and
  • (iv) satisfy the Recovery Act's transparency and accountability objectives."

In fact, economic stimulus is more than just a good idea. Obama's memo reminds agencies that they "shall not approve or otherwise support any project, application, or applicant for funding that is imprudent or that does not further the job creation, economic recovery, and other purposes of the Act." The president notes a few exceptions: no ARRA funds shall be used for "any casino or other gambling establishment, aquarium, zoo, golf course, or swimming pool."

How many casino-free jobs should NIH applicants propose creating? The more the better, and NIH's Acting Director Ray Kington gave a hint in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Labor-HHS--Education Appropriations, citing an NIH workforce study showing that "on average, every NIH grant supports six to seven in-part or full scientific jobs."
A national impact map at recovery.gov estimates how many jobs the folks in Washington anticipate resulting from the infusion of all (not just NIH) ARRA funds. California gains the most at 396,000 jobs, followed by Texas at 269,000 and Florida at 206,000. The state represented by NIH ARRA patron saint Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania, is expected to gain 143,000 jobs, similar to Illinois at 148,000. At the low end of the scale, Alaska, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming are all only projected to gain 8,000 jobs.

Internally, NIH is encouraging its staff to identify projects that meet ARRA objectives, such as creating jobs and distributing funds to diverse geographical areas — and that might be good publicity candidates.

So, applicants should propose to hire new people — not just move people between grants — and spend the money quickly so as to jump-start not only their science but also the economy.

The NIH must report each quarter how many jobs their awardees have created and how much grant money (i.e., taxpayer dollars) has flowed back into the economy. They will want these statistics to be especially impressive during the latter half of 2009, when most attention will be paid. In any case, with no carry-over and limitations on no-cost extensions, the basic rule will be: spend ARRA funding or lose it.

Unaccustomed to this mentality, many researchers do not realize the importance of a timeline, with specific, measurable milestones laying out how money will be spent each quarter, to their application's success.

Enhanced peer review

Aside from these nontraditional considerations, even the scientific peer review will be a tall order to fill. Reviewers will be examining proposals often in direct competition with their own. They will be looking at just 12 pages of narrative with sections that do not address scientific matters (jobs created, communities benefited, timeline, and milestones). Reviewers will be assessing proposals that came with specific instructions not to include detailed methods and with no requirement for preliminary data. They will be looking at bio-sketches with just 10 publications and only a page of supporting literature.

Never mind the unfamiliar application format, they will also be using a brand new scoring and critique system. An experienced reviewer can gauge the nuances of a 1.2 versus a 1.8 versus a 2.3 — but will have no experiential basis for separating a 1 from a 2 or a 3 from a 4. The many Challenge Grant reviewers with limited prior experience will have even less of a feel for which proposals should receive what score in each review criteria category.

Because the CSR has been so overwhelmed with RC1 applications, everyone at the NIH with prior experience as a Scientific Review Officer is being asked to pitch in. The CSR has barely had time to instruct its full-time SROs on the enhanced peer review procedures, and these individuals will be the ones guiding reviewers through the process. Fortunately, SROs will be spared any direct backlash: applicants cannot appeal their scores or outcome.

New application format, new funding mechanism, new SROs, new reviewers, new scoring system, new review criteria, new critique format. A responsible way to spend billions of dollars? Time will tell.

Unfortunately, despite such a recipe for disaster, a lot is riding on the outcome of this ARRA funding experiment. Given the transparency that will be enforced, the NIH must show Congress that it can manage taxpayer money successfully and demonstrate results — results that the public can understand in the context of health and disease. Otherwise, policy makers will be less inclined to increase the base appropriation, in which case paylines will drop steeply to historic lows.

Michelle Kienholz is a grant writer and research development administrator at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and maintains the blog Medical Writing, Editing & Grantsmanship. New application format, new funding mechanism, new SROs, new reviewers, new scoring system, new review criteria, new critique format. All in all, an exciting ride for stimulus grants.

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