Recovery Act Drives Record Number of NIH Grant Applications

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The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) was signed into law by President Obama on February 17th, 2009. It included significant support for biomedical research. As part of the Recovery Act, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) designated at least $200 million for a new initiative in fiscal year 2009 – 2010 called the NIH Challenge Grants in Health and Science Research (RC1). The initiative is designed to fund approximately 200 grants. Earlier this week, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced that the NIH has received approximately 20,000 Challenge Grant applications through the Recovery Act [1].


By way of comparison, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR) reviewed 27,360 Research Project Grants (R01s) and 9,483 Exploratory/Developmental Research Grants (R21s) for the entire year of 2008 [2]. Over the next few months, the CSR will check the submitted Challenge Grant applications for compliance and then review them in a two-phase process. Reviewers with expertise in the specific Challenge Areas (listed below) will do the first phase reviews, followed by a study section comprised of researchers who will focus on each application’s overall significance and impact. The earliest anticipated start date for those grants funded is September 30th, 2009.

The new program will support research on a range of Challenge Areas that focus on specific knowledge gaps, scientific opportunities, new technologies, data generation or research methods that would benefit from a rush of funds to quickly advance the area in significant ways. The areas include:

  • Behavior, Behavioral Change, and Prevention
  • Bioethics
  • Biomarker Discovery and Validation
  • Clinical Research
  • Comparative Effectiveness Research (CER)
  • Enabling Technologies
  • Enhancing Clinical Trials
  • Genomics
  • Health Disparities
  • Information Technology for Processing Health Care Data
  • Regenerative Medicine
  • Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education (STEM)
  • Smart Biomaterials – Theranostics
  • Stem Cells
  • Translational Science

Acting NIH Director Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D. said [1]:

These are exciting times for biomedical research and NIH. We issued the Challenge Grant Request for Applications and received the largest response in our history from the scientific community, both in terms of applications and assistance with the peer review process. Through the Challenge Grants, NIH will invest in targeted research of the highest quality that will impact both economic growth and human health.

However, the unprecedented number of applications is putting a huge strain on the peer review process at the NIH. Some suggest that the influx of applications will “overwhelm the NIH’s capacity to conduct adequate, high-quality reviews” [3]. What’s more, with a paltry funding rate of ~1% compared to the ~20% for regular NIH grants, unfunded Challenge Grants are likely to be resubmitted as Research Project Grants (R01s) later this year. NIH peer-review advisory committee officials predict that the increased number of R01 grants will significantly reduce the percentage of fundable applications in the fall [4]. This “ripple effect” may negatively impact paylines – the percentage of fundable grant applications – for sometime.

What’s more, the recently announced U.S. FY2010 budget increases NIH funding by a meager 1.5% – about $442 million – over the 2009 budget, excluding the $10.4 billion received this year in stimulus spending [5]. This continues a trend of flat or below-inflation funding for the NIH since 2003. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius claims that since the NIH received $10.4 billion from the Recovery Act this year, they won’t need “additional resources” in 2010 [6].

This story is far from over. Yesterday, Senator Arlen Specter chastised Sebelius at a Senate subcommittee hearing regarding the scant increase in NIH funding for next year, saying [7]:

I would urge you to take another look at that figure. […] The 10 billion dollars, which was added in the stimulus package, has created an enormous wave of excitement of young people. We are in jeopardy of losing a generation of young research scientists and I think we have to maintain the growth rate. We talk about cutting down the costs of healthcare. What better way on the cost factor than to prevent illness. […] The stimulus package and that $10 billion ought not to be looked at for the regular funding – that is extra. It was designed to create 70,000 new jobs for the two year period with a specific target that the President asked for and that the Congress responded in an affirmative way. […] We were looking for that to stimulate the economy and for jobs. I couldn’t tell you line-by-line on all the other measured items but I believe that is was not a generalization that the stimulus would be used in place of future year’s funding. We’d like to maintain NIH funding on its own.

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  1. NIH Receives 20,000 Applications for Challenge Grants Through the Recovery Act. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NIH News. 2009 Jun 8.
  2. Challenges Continue to Mount at NIH. Medical Writing, Editing & Grantsmanship. 2009 May 5.
  3. Breakthrough science can’t be rushed. Boston Globe. 2009 May 15.
  4. Grant applications swamp agency. Nature News. 2009 June 9.
  5. Science scores in 2010 US budget. The Scientist. 2009 May 7.
  6. Flush with recovery money, NIH gets flat budget. ScienceInsider. 2009 May 7.
  7. Senate Appropriations Subcmte. Hearing with HHS Sec. Sebelius. C-Span. 2009 Jun 9.
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.