NIH's Bounty Split Between Bricks and Basic Science

Biomedical researchers will have the chance to apply for quick-hit, $1 million challenge grants as part of the funding that the National Institutes of Health is slated to receive under the proposed economic recovery package introduced yesterday by Democrats in the House of Representatives. Each institute and center at NIH would be asked to identify “real scientific challenges that they are facing,” according to Acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. “Scientists would apply through a relatively quick process, to receive $500,000 a year for 2 years, to make progress in designated areas.” The grants could be extended for a longer time, Kington says, “depending on funding."

The challenge grants would be funded by a $1.5 billion pot for research created by the House bill. To avoid the boom-and-bust cycle that NIH has experienced in the past decade, half the money would be disbursed this year and the other half in 2010. "Funds will be allocated by competitive peer review to universities nationwide, as is current NIH funding, and to NIH intramural research," explains a report accompanying the bill. "Since NIH is currently able to support less than 20% of approved applications, it will be able to disburse this funding without delay through its regular grant cycles.”

NIH was also given $1.5 billion for short-term renovation projects and equipment purchases at outside institutions it supports. NIH would receive a separate $500 million to refurbish its own facilities in Bethesda, Maryland, and satellite sites, half its current needs according to recent testimony before Congress.

One biomedical lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous, says the House's plan for NIH was heavily influenced by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, a group that included Francis Collins, former head of NIH’s genome institute, and Harold Varmus, a former NIH director who now heads the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. They “basically cobbled together what would go into the NIH section,” claims the lobbyist.