The Odds of Winning NIH Stimulus Money

The feeding frenzy that began when scientists went after $10.4 billion in stimulus money at the National Institutes of Health seems to have given way to more normal grant-seeking behavior. NIH's latest stimulus competition for Grand Opportunities (GO) grants has attracted more than 2400 letters of intent, NIH acting Director Raynard Kington said today at a hearing of a Senate spending panel. He expects 2000 follow-up applications by the late May deadline.

That response is tiny compared with the 20,000 applications submitted for Challenge Grants, which 15,000 reviewers are now rushing to evaluate. GO grants are bigger—$1 million is the floor rather than the ceiling, as it is in Challenge awards—and it's not clear how many awards NIH will make. But the success rate will likely be considerably higher, up to 10%, rather than the dismal 2% that may be the case for the Challenge awards. Meanwhile, scientists who went an entirely different route and opted to expand an existing grant, known as a competitive revision, lucked out. NIH received about only 1600 applications, and according to this budget document will fund nearly 600 of them for a success rate well over 30%.

At today's hearing, the overarching concern of the chair, Senator Tom Harkin (D–IA), was the "cliff" edge NIH may soon face—that is, how the agency will support scientists after it spends the stimulus money, which the Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 says must be done by October 2010. "Maybe we might want to think about making an exception for NIH," said Harkin, suggesting 4 years might make more sense. Kington said NIH can spend the money "responsibly" in 2 years, but that "having more flexibility probably would be helpful."