747 Flyover?



As everyone is aware, on 27 April 2009, Louis Caldera, director of the White House Military Office, an amazingly clueless individual, decided to order a flyover of a 747 aircraft over New York City to get a nice picture. Besides the fact that any computer geek with even limited talent could have generated the image, the stunt understandably scared a lot of New Yorkers. Understandably, Mr Caldera is no longer with the White House. Thus, we can now expect that even employees of the federal government can be held accountable for their actions.

Members of the scientific community are excited and energized regarding the placement of the stimulus effort to enhance many aspects of research. We all agree that this effort, which includes an extra 12 billion dollars to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will enhance the future of biomedical research, and stimulate many aspects of the economy by new hires in the research community, and in all the associated industries that rely upon us. I think the research community and the American public can be grateful to the new administration for giving our biomedical research establishment a “shot in the arm,” which we believe will have untold positive effects on the health of the country in years to come.

Questions may be raised as to how this distribution of funds is being handled. Of course, there is an enormous burden on the NIH extramural staff, as well as the scientific community in general, to be able to apply the peer review system in an emergency situation. Our colleagues at the NIH deserve to be congratulated and sympathized with for all they are doing.

But, I have a “bone to pick” with the so-called “Challenge Grants.” The NIH invited us to submit new and exciting ideas to be funded over a 2-year period up to $500,000 per year. This was such an enticing experience that over 20,000 such grants have been submitted as of this writing. But, the number funded was originally to be as little as 200, which would represent a funding rate of 1%. Many investigators rightly decided not to write a proposal with such a low chance of being funded, but many others took the chance. We now read that the rate of funding might be higher, which seems unfair to those that made a rational decision about whether to submit. More important is to consider what the fate of the 19,800 (or maybe a little less) unfunded Challenge Grants in the future. If all, or most of the investigators who struggled to put together a Challenge Grant now decided to submit as a regular R01 grant, and if that happened in the next grant cycle or two, the NIH could expect up to 10,000–20,000 new applications. There is no way the NIH can review or fund more than a small fraction of these new ideas. Thus, it is possible—even likely—that the unintended consequence of the Challenge Grant program is to stuff a large number of new ideas into a system without the person-power or the financial ability to efficiently evaluate a huge number of grants. Many good or even great ideas may be lost in the shuffle of such a massive undertaking. It is not impossible that this grant program may represent the “747 flyover” of the NIH review process. What to do?

The scientific community needs to hear from the NIH about how it is going to deal with this potential problem. One approach is to accept for review as an R01 only some fraction of all the unfunded Challenge Grants—possibly those with a review score above a certain number. In any event, I believe that it is time to plan for this strange future, in which the NIH review and funding process could spend the next 5 years reviewing and finally working all these Challenge Grant ideas through the system. Hopefully, we will hear from them in the near future.