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Researchers can use Rapid Response Research grants from the National Science Foundation to quickly launch studies of unexpected or traumatic events, such as the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Florida.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

Congress pumps up NSF program to fast-track COVID-19 research

Roxane Silver studies the health effects of traumatic life events. So it was a no-brainer for the social psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, to ask the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund a study of how the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic would affect the well-being of Americans.

Fortunately for Silver, NSF has a mechanism for fast-tracking time-sensitive ideas like hers. It’s called Rapid Response Research (RAPID). Over the past 3 decades, Silver has used the mechanism seven times to field surveys immediately after mass shootings, hurricanes, and the September 2001 terrorist attacks. On 6 March she sent in her proposal, and 1 week later NSF awarded her $200,000 to begin a study on the long-term impacts of one’s initial response to the pandemic.

Silver is one of a dozen investigators to date who have received RAPID awards relating to COVID-19. And this week, Congress gave NSF an extra $75 million to spend on research that will help “prevent, prepare for, and respond” to the novel coronavirus.

The money is a tiny slice of the $2 trillion stimulus package crafted by legislators to help the country deal with—and ultimately recover from—the pandemic. But it promises to supercharge a little-used funding mechanism at NSF that has been around for decades.

“It’s been an invaluable way to get into the field right away,” Silver says about RAPID. “We’ve used it many times to collect an initial round of data, and then follow up with a regular proposal to NSF to continue the work.”

Almost a sure bet

Last year, NSF spent about $10 million on 118 RAPID awards. Based on an average award size of $89,000—there’s a $200,000 cap—the new stimulus funds could give 840 scientists an opportunity to launch studies relating to COVID-19. And the program’s history—it began in 1990 as part of a broader initiative and was reformulated in 2009—suggests their chances of success are very high.

In 2018, NSF funded 78% of the 276 RAPID proposals it received. (That success rate is based on a pool of proposals that have already made it through a preliminary vetting by NSF program staff.) That’s roughly three times better than the NSF-wide average for all research proposals. And the competition in 2018 was stiffer than usual. For most of the past decade, the success rate for RAPID proposals has topped 90%—it was an incredible 98% in 2013, for example, and 97% in 2017.

In a departure from NSF’s usual grantsmaking process, RAPID proposals don’t get reviewed by outside experts. Instead, investigators send in a brief description—Silver’s initial idea ran 1.5 pages—to the relevant program officer, who holds the reins. Silver did that on 26 February, and within 4 days she received the green light to submit a full proposal.

Working at lightning speed, Silver and her team laid out their research plans. Likewise, the university’s team of research administrators pulled out all the stops to making sure the proposal met all the requirements for requesting federal funding, including getting almost instant approval from an institutional review board because the research involved human subjects.

Five days after NSF said yes, Silver began to collect data from an existing online panel created by NORC, a nonprofit survey organization at the University of Chicago. The instrument, called AmeriSpeak, consists of a nationally representative sample of adult Americans who have agreed to participate in social science research.

Silver says she chose AmeriSpeak because it also contains information on the mental and physical health of respondents. The data are deidentified and their privacy is protected, she says. But having that baseline information is extremely helpful in teasing out the effect of any particular traumatic event.

The team hopes to collect initial data on 5000 people over the next 6 weeks—2100 people responded in the first 7 days, Silver notes—and then follow up with them several months later. The survey takes about 20 minutes and can be done on a cellphone, she says.

Silver hopes the new project will enhance our understanding of what factors exert the biggest influence on how traumatic events impact society. This week, her team published a paper that points the finger at over-the-top media coverage of previous pandemics.

“Repeated media exposure to community crisis can lead to increased anxiety, heightened stress responses that can lead to downstream effects on health, and misplaced health-protective and help-seeking behaviors that can overburden health care facilities and tax available resources,” they write in Health Psychology. “As threats continue to emerge, repeated high levels of media exposure to these kinds of events may create a cycle of distress. People with the greatest concerns may seek out more media coverage of the event, further increasing their stress response.”

Silver says she’s not advocating any type of media censorship. But she thinks people need to be aware of the potential risk to their health from “repeated exposure to graphic images” from, say, a mass shooting or terrorist attack.

All fields welcome

Although NSF doesn’t fund any clinical research, the RAPID grants give the agency a way to help fight the pandemic by supporting scientists doing relevant work across many disciplines. One recent RAPID award, for example, will help a team of engineers and materials scientists at Northwestern University develop a self-sanitizing face mask. Another project will allow education researchers at two universities to work with high school social studies teachers and their students to create a unit on pandemics.

Congress also gave NSF $1 million to handle the additional administrative load from an anticipated slew of RAPID proposals. But Silver says the historically high success rates don’t mean NSF will lower its standards in assessing their ideas.

 The only proposal of hers that got shot down, she says, was for a study involving public attitudes toward the controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. “It went to political science, which is outside my wheelhouse,” she admits. A successful RAPID grant, she advises her colleagues, “should provide a strong theoretical basis for the work, in addition to a clear justification for why the data are needed now.”