A Stimulated NIH Discovers the Devil in the Grant Details

Patently BIOtech

In February, Congress awarded the National Institutes of Health with stimulus funds to the tune of $10.4 billion through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). The funding is directed towards helping the United States improve its “scientific infrastructure”: education initiatives, research, “investment in biomedical research and development, public health and health care delivery” (NIH Press Release), including $400 million for comparative effectiveness studies.

Acting National Institutes of Health Director, Raynard S. Kington, MD, has done an excellent job of diversifying the kinds of projects that funding will support, as well as looking for solutions to some of the more, well, I’ll call them opportunities for growth (read: beaurcratic red tape).

Science Magazine further describes these opportunities in the April 17 edition article “NIH Stimulus Plans Triggers Flood of Applications—and Anxiety.”

Grant applicants question whether the NIH has the capacity to manage the tsunami of applications.  Researchers in the Science article also ask if the NIH baseline funding “will grow at anywhere close to the rate needed to handle the blizzard of new ideas and expanded scientific work force” that the Recovery Act funding will produce once the stimulus funds expire. This would allow the projects to continue, if further research was recommended.

Additionally, an April 24 Burrill Report podcast (http://www.burrillreport.com/article-1311.html) interviews Reg Kelly, Director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), about whether the stimulus could slow down discoveries. University researchers, seeing state and alumni funding cuts, will spend all of their time preparing grant applications.  Researchers are forced to ignore current projects during the application process. Even if they do receive funding, they will face a technology transfer system that isn’t quite ready for a grand influx of fresh ideas just “waiting” to get picked up for further research & development. Kelly further asks if the technology transfer community is collectively incentivized (and collectively capable) of prioritizing funding for stated NIH priorities like personalized medicine, vaccines (read today: swine flu), cancer, and HIV/AIDS research.

While the stimulus created an “innovation backlog”, it can only be a good thing. For the next two years, NIH programs like “Grand Opportunities” and “Challenge Grants” will enable today’s bright minds to forge new paths into health and environmental sustainability – at least for the next 2 years, when the grant rivers run dry.  In 2012, the new challenge will be utilizing the innovation boomtown the stimulus will have inevitably created. 

If the stimulus succeeds in providing researchers enough funding to help form ideas to improve the world, it will take just as much effort for the biotechnology industry to turn that research into tangible products for a global audience.

Next question: Are the other United States federal agencies (FDA, USDA, and USPTO among them) ready to usher these innovations into the economy?

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