Smoke but No Fire


Dear GrantDoctor:

I would like to look into submitting a grant for research on nicotine and serotonin interactions. I was hoping to be able to submit a grant for funding from the state tobacco settlements in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as we hope to identify developmental aspects of the nicotine and serotonin interactions.

Any tips would be greatly appreciated.


At first glance, it seems like a good plan: to use tobacco-settlement money to do tobacco-related research. But when you look at it in detail, it doesn't hold together; despite a huge influx of cash from the master settlement agreement, there's very little money available from the fund for basic tobacco-related research and very little desire within the tobacco-control community to see the money spent that way. The picture gets worse: not only is the tobacco settlement agreement a poor bet for tobacco-related basic research, but apart from the tobacco companies--and you don't want to go there--there really are no good sources of support for tobacco-related research.

I asked Cheryl Healton, President and CEO of the American Legacy Foundation (ALF) and a public-health professor at Columbia University: Is there any money from the tobacco settlement that is earmarked for research?

Healton's ALF has spent some $28 million on tobacco-related research in its short history, not counting about $21 million spent on evaluating the effectiveness of the organization's own programs. But ALF's research agenda is limited to public health: ALF only funds research that promises directly to aid smoking prevention and cessation.

Your work may or may not fit ALF's mission, but for now the point is moot: that money is already spent, and the future of ALF-funded research is cloudy. The foundation lost its main source of support--$270 million paid annually--when the last scheduled payment into its education fund was made in March of 2004. If that money isn't replaced, ALF won't be funding tobacco research anytime soon.

It may very well be replaced. In the ongoing federal tobacco case, the attorney general and legal interveners have requested between $400 million and $600 million annually for ALF for up to 10 years. If that money comes through, says Healton, ALF will probably sponsor another round of research funding, but even then they will continue to support only research with a narrow public-health focus.

Either way, ALF--arguably the only independent, science-based entity associated with the tobacco settlement--isn't going anywhere. The organization has accumulated $1 billion in a reserve fund, so, although its budgets may be cut, the organization's future is assured.

So what about the states? The idea of spending settlement money on tobacco-related research is certainly attractive, but it has few friends at the state level. "The attitude of state tobacco control people toward any of those moneys going to research is extremely hostile," says Healton, "because the industry always wants tobacco dollars to go to create new research centers and more research on cessation as opposed to taking those dollars and spending them on policy strategies that we absolutely know work. They consider it a violation of the sacred trust to divert those dollars to research--or, frankly, to paving roads, building prisons, etc.--particularly because it plays into the industry's hands." So am I right, I asked, that the idea of spending tobacco-settlement money on research has virtually no supporters? "Except the tobacco industry," Healton replied, "and the legislators in its pocket."

So could those state legislators be convinced to fund your research? Possibly, but there are no existing funding initiatives so big projects with political clout are more likely to be successful than small ones. Besides, most states would rather spend the money paving roads and building prisons. Despite the $206 billion awarded to the states in the tobacco settlement, ALF remains, with its $28 million, the nation's biggest spender of tobacco-settlement money on research. Less than 5% of tobacco-settlement money paid out so far has even been used for health care. Occasionally one hears about a plan to spend some of the money on stem-cell research and biotech startups, but most state legislatures don't even speak the language of peer-reviewed research proposals. It's a funding dead end.

So where should you turn to fund tobacco-related research? I wish I had better answers. "NIH does virtually no public health research on tobacco," says Healton. "One third of all cancers are tobacco-related, yet 2% of the NIH budget is focused on research remotely related to tobacco. The National Cancer Institute spends virtually nothing on tobacco." And the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute? It "has done virtually nothing with tobacco, even though tobacco is the leading cause of heart attacks" for people under 55.

How could this be? We all know that legislative funding decisions are highly political. But within the NIH, aren't funds allocated on something like a scientific basis? "When it comes to tobacco," Healton says, "I think it's fair to say 'not really.'"

Why such reticence from the world's leading supporter of research related to human health and disease? According to Healton, tobacco research is under-funded by NIH for two main reasons. The first is tobacco clout: federal research spending reflects the attitudes of lawmakers toward tobacco companies, which contribute heavily to campaign coffers. The second reason, according to Healton--who comes from the world of HIV research--is that not unlike HIV in the early years, smoking-related diseases are widely regarded as "lifestyle diseases"--diseases of choice. Attempts to address them with public dollars don't have a lot of public support.

So all I can do is advise you to give up on the tobacco-settlement angle and direct your attention to the usual research-funding suspects. NIH support for tobacco-related research isn't healthy, but if your proposal is strong your application to NIH could still succeed. Just keep the focus on basic science, and suggest the National Institute of General Medical Sciences as a potential funding institute in your cover letter. Consider, too, the various philanthropies that support research into smoking-related diseases.

Best of luck,

The GrantDoctor

Grant Doctor:

I am a new assistant professor at an established academic institution. My fiancée was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor (salaried) and I was hired by the same institution as a research-track assistant professor (100% soft-money).

I would like to know if I am eligible for the K22 grants.

Also, are there any other grants specific to young investigators in non-tenure track positions?



Determining eligibility for K awards isn't as easy as applying a set of objective criteria; rather, it's a question of the degree of your institution's support for your career. To qualify to apply for a K award you have to show that you'll still have a job if your application fails. It doesn't really matter whether your salary is paid from soft money; what matters is what would happen if those grants were to end. Would your institution (a) continue to employ you, or (b) allow your employment to end without really noticing, once that outside funding runs out? If your answer is "b," you probably don't qualify for a K award. If the answer is "a," and your university is willing to make that commitment by supporting your application for a K22--then you probably do. It won't hurt to ask.

Be well,

The GrantDoctor

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