NIH Feeling Overstimulated

Details emerged this week on how the deluge of applications submitted to the National Institutes of Health's Challenge Grant competition could disrupt the normal grant cycle down the road, possibly doubling or tripling the number of grants submitted well into next year.

The agency has now received nearly 21,000 proposals for the Challenge awards, which are funded with the agency's $10.4 billion in stimulus money. That tops the 16,000 applications NIH normally receives in each of its regular three grant cycles per year. The NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) has recruited 18,000 scientists to review Challenge proposals this summer and 2000 for other stimulus grants, in addition to the 8000 reviewers it will use for regular grants. NIH tried to put a positive spin on the numbers in a press release yesterday: "These are exciting times for biomedical research and NIH," gushed acting NIH Director Raynard Kington. But few scientists will be celebrating in a few months, as a mere 1%–2% of the Challenge grants will likely be funded.

Those who lose out won't have completely wasted their time, as they can resubmit their ideas as a regular R01 investigator-initiated grant. These proposals may face tough odds, too, however, CSR Director Antonio Scarpa told his advisory council yesterday.

The recycled Challenge proposals could bloat the number of R01 applications far above the normal 9000 or so per cycle, Scarpa said. His rough projections are that the biggest crunch will come in 2010 with a possible 30,000 applications to be reviewed in February and 25,000 in October (see graph). As a result, success rates for these grants, normally over 20%, could plummet.

Scarpa said NIH is trying to figure out ways to ease the burden on the reviewers of these R01s. They won't be able to draw on the Challenge grant reviews because the recycled proposals will be considered new applications that must be reviewed all over again, says CSR spokesperson Donald Luckett. The numbers are "guesstimates," cautions Luckett. "We're trying to be prepared for possibilities."

(Click here for a larger version of the graph. Credit: Antonio Scarpa, CSR/NIH)