US trying to make science grant awards more efficient

From both the NIH and a leading philanthropist, nation’s researchers get new hope for cutting the huge waste of time and effort in bureaucratic reviews

May 25, 2022
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Inspired handouts: the Hypothesis Fund lets individual scientists back ideas

Hopes for bypassing the time-wasting morass of research grant review panels are getting two big new tests in the US.

At the National Institutes of Health, some initial data are showing encouraging signs for a programme known as Mira – the Maximising Investigators’ Research Award – that gives scientists and their labs much longer and larger grants than normal.

Meanwhile a new non-profit effort backed by LinkedIn co-founder and billionaire Reid Hoffman, called the Hypothesis Fund, is avoiding review panels altogether by letting individual scientists give away millions of dollars in research funding.

Both are part of the long-running and often frustrating hunt for ways to keep the quality in the $50 billion (£40 billion)-plus spent each year on US university research, while cutting down the massive numbers of hours that scientists spend just applying for grants.

Mira gives grants that can run to at least twice the average NIH award size of about $600,000, and puts greater faith in a laboratory’s overall body of work rather than closely scrutinising each of its intended projects.

At the Hypothesis Fund, the goal is to pick up to 100 top scientists who will be given $300,000 apiece to award to colleagues with interesting research ideas, largely in human health and climate change. The just-started venture’s chief financiers include Mr Hoffman and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, and its creator and chief executive is David Sanford, a former chief of staff to Mr Hoffman and a former orthopaedics research assistant at the University of Washington.

More at the basic science level, a major existing model for minimising bureaucratic science-evaluation panels is the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the nation’s largest private biomedical research institution and funder. It currently supports more than 250 scientists at more than 60 research institutions. Its latest class of 33 scientists will be given about $9 million over seven years, renewable once after a successful scientific review.

Mira, which started in 2015, has been trying something similar, although with smaller amounts and shorter time frames. It’s so far also largely limited to one NIH division, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, that focuses heavily on basic research. But initial assessments, while limited in nature, are positive, said Michael Lauer, head of external grant awards at the NIH.

One study of Mira showed that participants were winning renewal rates well above normal NIH levels, suggesting positive scientific outputs, Dr Lauer said. Another internal study of Mira, he said, affirmed that the security of long-term funding is leading participants to spend significantly less time hunting for new grant support.

So far Mira is getting about $1.3 billion a year, or about 3 per cent of the $35 billion the NIH spends each year on research conducted outside the agency, Dr Lauer said. “But it’s real money, and it's growing,” he said.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: It’s a research grant Mira-cle

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