NIH Pleads for Discretion, Hopes Grantees Hire Fast

Science Administrators Promise Rapid Use of Funding

The acting director of the National Institutes of Health begged university administrators on Wednesday to avoid even applying for stimulus money unless the universities planned to hire people almost immediately.

“It would be the height of embarrassment,” the official, Dr. Raynard S. Kington, said, “if we give these grants and find out that institutions are not spending them to hire people and make purchases and advance the science the way they’re designed to do.”

Not a problem, the administrators said, in interviews. After working under flat federal research financing for years, scientists are ecstatic. “This is a miracle, I think,” A.J. Stewart Smith, the dean for research at Princeton, said. “It is redressing this terrible problem where the success rate for excellent proposals was very low.”

From proposed animal research laboratories at the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska and the University of Pennsylvania to empty floors in laboratory buildings at the University of California, Irvine, Ohio State University and Southern Illinois University, colleges across the country have hundreds of shovel- and beaker-ready projects in the sciences that could collectively cost tens of billions and begin within weeks.

“We’re grateful for the money, but it’s not such a large number that anybody’s going to have to look very hard for good projects to fund,” said Leslie Tolbert, the vice president for research at the University of Arizona.

When President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion stimulus measure last Tuesday, one of the law’s most surprising provisions was a 36 percent increase in the budget for the National Institutes of Health. The law gives the health institutes $10.4 billion in addition to its annual budget of $29 billion, and the new money must be allocated by September 2010 on grants and other projects that can extend no more than two years.

The law gives the National Science Foundation $2 billion in stimulus financing for research grants, and the foundation also has until September 2010 to spend the money. But the foundation will act much faster, pushing nearly all of that money out to scientists within 120 days, said Jeffrey Nesbit, an NSF spokesman. (Last year, the science foundation’s $6.1 billion budget included $4.8 billion for research grants; Congress has not finished the budget for the current fiscal year.)

The spending increase comes after six years of nearly flat research budgets at the NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and other agencies, and growing desperation at research universities, which depend on the agencies to underwrite much of their scientific faculty and laboratory infrastructure.

To speed the process, the science foundation will not put out any new calls for proposals from researchers, but will instead use the money to finance a higher fraction of proposals already under review and to finance old ones that were judged meritorious last year but were turned down because of insufficient financing.

The one opportunity that will require new applications is for a pool of $200 million for universities to refurbish laboratories. The foundation will provide more details about its spending plans after officials meet this week with the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF.

Kington of the NIH provided only a broad outline of the agency’s new financing priorities. And while he insisted that the health institutes would rely on its traditional method of committee reviews for approving grant proposals, he also said that agency administrators would have unusual discretion in financing proposals.

Even politics — long taboo in agency financing decisions — could play a role.

“We will be sensitive to geographic distribution,” said Kington, who emphasized that the money was intended to stimulate “the nation’s” economy.

Grant proposals that scientific review committees have already deemed worthy will receive top priority for the financing, Kington said. Nearly all such proposals seek four years of financing, but agency administrators will pick out the grants for projects that they believe could be completed in two years, he said.

Although Congress has pressed the agency in recent years to increase financing for clinical research, such trials tend to take many years and thus would be unlikely to receive stimulus financing, Kington said.

A significant share of the new money will be used to bolster grants that have already received some financing, Kington said. Some of this supplemental financing will be approved by committees and others by administrators.

And agency administrators will “soon” send out instructions on how universities can apply for grants in special areas of science that will be given priority by administrators, Kington said.

The agency must spend $1 billion to support construction projects at universities and $300 million to help buy equipment and scientific instruments. An additional $500 million will be spent on federal buildings, mostly at the NIH campus in Bethesda, Md. University administrators said they were eager to get the money and promised that any grants they received would immediately stimulate local economies.

At the University of Pennsylvania, architectural plans are ready and a site is picked for the Singh Nanotechnology Center, an 80,000-square-foot building for which the university has been able to raise only $60 million of the estimated $95 million cost. The center could be financed by either the health institutes or the science foundation, said Steven Fluharty, vice provost for research at the university.

“At Singh, a shovel could go into the ground tomorrow if we had the money,” Fluharty said.

In addition to three new science buildings, the University of Pennsylvania has definitive plans for more than a dozen scientific renovation projects that each need $3 million to $15 million to complete, Fluharty said.

Susan Bryant, the vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Irvine, said her university could start more than $100 million in construction projects in the next two months if money were available.

“We have several buildings where we didn’t have the money to finish part of the building,” Bryant said.

Although Kington serves in an acting capacity, he will have more power to distribute more money than any agency director in history. The legislation gives his office about $1 billion to distribute as he sees fit, with few of the agency’s usual restrictions.

But Kington promised to follow the agency’s traditions of rewarding scientific merit, providing opportunity and being transparent.

“We’re not going to sell our soul for $10 billion,” he said and then added as a joke, “It would cost much more.”