If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



NIH Windfall

Stimulus money creates short-term gains, long-term challenges for biomedical research agency

by Britt E. Erickson
June 1, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 22

Many people are keeping a close eye on decisions made at NIH about recovery act money.
Many people are keeping a close eye on decisions made at NIH about recovery act money.

IT'S NOT EVERY DAY that the National Institutes of Health is handed nearly $10.4 billion and told to spend the money in less than two years. But that is the position the agency finds itself in today thanks to the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act.

After years of flat or declining budgets, NIH welcomed the stimulus money with open arms. The agency has repeatedly said how grateful it is to the President and Congress for the opportunity to improve the nation's health and economy. But NIH, with an annual budget hovering around $30 billion, was caught somewhat off guard by the enormous size of the package.

"We have been working around the clock to prepare for this possibility, to make the most effective, transparent, and immediate use of these extraordinary resources," Raynard S. Kington, acting director of NIH, said in a statement in February, when the stimulus package was signed into law. "NIH will be using multiple approaches," focusing on projects that are expected to be completed in a two-year time frame, he added.

NIH announced early on that it would spend $8.2 billion of its stimulus money on extramural scientific research. The money will be spread among the NIH institutes and centers and the Office of the Director.

It remains unclear, however, how much of the $8.2 billion will be spent on existing proposals and how much will be spent on new ones.

Of the remaining $2.2 billion, $1.3 billion will go to the National Center for Research Resources to fund renovations and construction of extramural research facilities and to purchase shared research equipment. And $500 million will be used for renovations and construction of NIH buildings and facilities. In addition, $400 million will be transferred to NIH from the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality to compare the effectiveness, risks, and benefits of two or more drugs aimed at treating the same condition.

As the details unfold about how NIH will spend its stimulus funding, some people are concerned that the agency is not focusing enough attention on what will happen in the long term. The last thing they want to see is NIH floundering to fund an unprecedented number of grants in 2011, when the stimulus money runs out.

NIH officials are cognizant of the issue and say they are doing what they can to prevent the funding bubble from bursting in 2011.

"We are going to see a large infusion of dollars into the biomedical research enterprise. If it's successful, and we believe it will be, it will inevitably create new advances and new opportunities that will, in turn, lead to more grant applications down the road," Kington tells C&EN. But it is virtually impossible to predict the impact of the recovery money on future grant submissions, he emphasizes.

Some NIH officials predict that 2011 will be a challenging year unless NIH receives a substantial increase in its appropriations. "There's no way you can put this much money into a system and not have it create some increased capability and, therefore, increased demand for continuing resources," says Jeremy M. Berg, director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), which funds more chemistry-related research than any other NIH institute.

NIH faced a similar situation after the completion of a five-year doubling of the budget in 2003. Since then, the NIH budget has been flat or even declining, leaving researchers in a difficult funding environment.

AN INTERESTING LESSON from that experience is that "the number of applications didn't rise during the time when there were big budget increases. They really came after 2003, when the budgets were much flatter," Berg says. The reason for this, he explains, is that "you get people excited and thinking about new things." This then leads to ideas that "trickle out over years, past the time of the initial opportunities," he adds.

NIGMS is preparing for that scenario "to the best of our ability," Berg says, although he acknowledges that there aren't many ways to prevent it from happening. One thing the institute is doing to cushion that landing is making sure both NIH and the scientific community have realistic expectations about what will happen in 2011.

When it comes to spending the recovery act funds, the institutes are distributing their investments among grant applications that have already been peer reviewed, new grant applications for existing programs, targeted supplements to accelerate the pace of current grants, and support for new activities. The distribution among these categories varies across the agency.

For instance, NIGMS plans to spend about half its stimulus money on funding already peer-reviewed, highly meritorious research grant applications that have a reasonable expectation of making progress in two years or less, Berg notes. The institute will also be using recovery money to support several administrative supplements. Those funds are intended to speed up ongoing projects by providing equipment or additional personnel.

In terms of new activities spurred by the recovery act, one of the core programs is an initiative called the Challenge Grants program. In early March, NIH announced that it would spend at least $200 million of the stimulus money allocated to the Office of the Director on the program. The initiative will fund at least 200 grants in biomedical and behavioral research, each up to $1 million over two years. Each of the institutes and centers can fund its own Challenge Grants in addition to those funded by the Office of the Director.

The Challenge Grants cover more than 200 topics across 15 broad themes, including regenerative medicine, health disparities, bioethics, behavior, prevention, clinical research, and translational research, Kington notes. "The request for applications was the largest ever issued in NIH history in terms of pages," he says.

The response to the Challenge Grants was also overwhelming. By the April 29 deadline, NIH had received more than 20,000 applications, Kington says. To put things in perspective, NIH typically receives about 70,000 applications each year, he notes.

"It's very uplifting. We are proud of the scientific community for responding and demonstrating their commitment to this effort," says Sally J. Rockey, acting NIH deputy director for extramural research. "Obviously, we are working feverishly to manage all of these applications that we received and get the peer review done."

WITH SUCH slim odds of actually getting one of the Challenge Grants, researchers are already thinking about what to do if they aren't one of the lucky 2% to be funded through this program. Many are likely to repurpose their applications as NIH Research Project Grants, better known as R01s.

"Many of the applications may see another life in our usual funding streams. That may lead to larger numbers of grants submitted in subsequent years," Kington says. "And that could have an effect on the success rate if our budget does not allow us to fund a healthy number of those applications." For 2008, the overall average success rate for NIH grants was 21.8%.

Several of the NIH institutes and centers are also participating in another new initiative called the Grand Opportunities (GO) program. That program will use about $200 million in stimulus money to support large-scale, high-impact ideas that lend themselves to short-term funding. The program is expected to spur growth and investment in biomedical research and development.

"The topics were intentionally picked as things that could be done to promote economic stimulus and could be done reasonably in two years without creating a big expectation or need going forward," Berg notes. Examples of potential GO projects include those creating multifunctional particles and probes that target and deliver chemical agents within a cell or organism and studies probing how therapeutic agents affect metabolic pathways in humans.

Another NIH-wide effort made possible with the recovery funds is a new faculty start-up program. "The goal is to help restart searches for tenure-track faculty positions that were under way but were canceled because of a lack of resources," Berg explains. The program is expected to fund 100 to 200 faculty positions for up to two years. Many NIH institutes and centers are participating in the effort.

It could take several more months before the institutes and centers decide who gets what funding from the stimulus money, but some of the money is already going out the door.

Meanwhile, researchers are excited about even the slightest possibility of getting a piece of the recovery-act pie. "The stimulus package has energized a lot of scientists," says Paul A. Wender, a chemistry professor at Stanford University. "It's a special opportunity, and one that is long overdue."



This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.