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NIH Stimulus Spending Focused Mostly on Existing Grants; No Funds to Restore Previous Cuts

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – Some broad details are beginning to emerge from the National Institutes of Health about how it plans to spend the billions of dollars it will take in under the $789 billion economic stimulus package that President Obama signed in Denver earlier this week.

The NIH's plans include funding applications for programs that are already on hand and that are expected to make progress over the next couple of years, and creating a new program that will support research supplements. In addition, none of the money will be used to restore previous cuts to existing programs and grants, according to an academic official familiar with the NIH's plans.

While the NIH is "extremely grateful" for the $10.4 billion in extra funding it was granted, as Acting Director Raynard Kington said in a statement this week, the agency that is used to planning its grant programs in advance now faces a challenge in quickly reviewing projects and disbursing funds.

After five years of nearly flat funding, NIH now has to spend a windfall equivalent to thirty percent of its entire annual budget in about 20 months. NIH's planners "have been working around the clock to prepare for this possibility, to make the most effective, transparent, and immediate use of these extraordinary resources," said Kington.

While the Office of the Director has not yet made public its plans — although it is supposed to hold a conference call next week — what NIH officials have come up with so far are outlines of how the agency will dice up and distribute the funds, according to Tim Mulcahy, vice president for research at the University of Minnesota.

Mulcahy, who participated in a teleconference with Kington and Association of American Universities representatives this week, wrote in a memo that the focus of the funding structure will be to "preserve and create jobs … contribute to economic recovery … and deliver short-term investments that will have long-term impact."

He provided a breakdown on the entire amount of the one-time stimulus that has been allocated to NIH under the American Recovery Reinvestment Act. Mulcahy said that most of it — $8.2 billion — will go toward scientific priorities, including $7.4 billion to the institutes, centers, and the common fund. Another $800 million will go to the Office of the Director; $1 billion will go to the National Centers for Research Resources for renovations and repairs, and NCRR will use $300 million to buy equipment and instruments; $500 million will be available for facilities; and $400 billion will go toward comparative effectiveness research.

The $8.2 billion for research will be distributed in three ways. Some will support R01 applications that have already been reviewed, and those submitted in fiscal 2008 and 2009 that have been judged for merit but did not receive awards because of tight funding.

Some of the money will go to projects that speed up research in high-priority areas that are already being conducted under existing grants. These awards will be based on themes, such as equipment, training, and summer student jobs.

An estimate of between $100 million and $200 million will start a new program called NIH Challenge Grants. This program will solicit applications in focus areas determined by the institutes, and the awards will be based on peer review through a process that is currently under consideration.

The money will not be used to restore cuts to existing programs or grants, nor will it be assigned proportionally to particular priorities. Typical NIH grant mechanisms will be used, and the "process will be open and transparent."

The money has to be spent in the two years, and researchers should not seek funds if they can't plan on spending it in that time.

Those receiving funding also will be required to provide "significantly greater" detail about how many jobs were created or retained as a result of the award, according to Mulcahy's memo.

"We are well positioned to address the most vexing public health challenges of our time, while stimulating the economy in the 50 states and territories through 3,000 institutions we currently fund to conduct outstanding biomedical and behavioral research," Kington said in his statement.

Dave Moore, who is senior director for government relations at the Association of American Medical Colleges, told GenomeWeb Daily News on Thursday that he expects some of the NCRR's equipment funding to go into its shared instruments program, which covers the cost of lab tools costing between $100,000 and $500,000, and its high-end program, which covers the cost of equipment costing over $750,000.

"All off the institutes and centers have strategic plans and have high priority areas," said Moore. The medical research colleges and universities also "have plans in place and strategic priorities. Now the question is how to best address those priorities."