NIH Challenge Grant (RC1) Application

To stimulate the U.S. economy, about $200 million dollars had been set aside for Challenge Grants. NIH is offering this money to eligible institutions, to address certain scientific or technological problems. But the process is competitive; one must submit an application, and only the “best” applications will be awarded money. There are fifteen broad “Challenge Areas”, and within each Challenge Area there are multiple Specific Challenge Topics. All told, there are about 100 Specific Challenge Topics; to apply, you have to choose a Challenge Area, and then within that a Specific Challenge Topic, that you want to address.

This means that, on average, about $2 million dollars are set aside for each Specific Challenge Topic. And each grant is limited to a total of $500,000 per year, amounting to a maximum of $1 million dollars to be dispensed over the course of two years. So, this means that, on average, for each Specific Challenge Topic, only about two applications will be awarded funds.

For one of the Specific Challenge Topics, we heard through an unofficial channel that NIH had already received about a hundred inquiries. If we assume that only half of the people making these inquiries will actually go through the trouble of putting together a grant application, we then estimate that this Specific Challenge Topic will receive 50 applications. Since only about two (on average) applications will be awarded per Specific Challenge Topic, that means only about 1 in 25 applications will be awarded.

On March 25 of this year, at the weekly meeting of the Methods Group at work, my supervisor announced that he and another director thought it would be a good idea to apply for some of this federal grant money. And they wanted me to write the application, probably because I have a reputation in the company to have a knack for writing both well (at least, for a numerical/engineering type) and quickly. Since the due date was April 27, this gave me little more than a month to get the application together. I was a little reluctant to undertake this, since (from prior experience) I know that writing a grant application is a major undertaking. And one month is not very much time. Another problem is that I would depend on many people to do crucial things (for example, to provide their C.V. in a special format called an NIH Biosketch), and I know from experience that people tend to procrastinate until the very last minute.

The deadline for submission, April 27, 2009, is a Monday, but since this was going to be the first time that I submitted a federal grant application through my current employer, I wanted to attempt to submit the grant application the Friday before, April 24. That way, if unexpected glitches arose, we would have three days to address them.

So, I spent the past month obsessing over the grant application. The “meat” of the application was the Research Methods and Design component (the “Research Plan”), and I spent most of my time on this. I had to cajole Key Personnel to send me their NIH Biosketches and Letters of Support. I also had to obtain a budget from this subcontractor. I had to draw up my own budget, and then justify the expenses in this budget; the latter required me to cajole Key Personnel to send me a short blurb describing their background and expertise (this in addition to the Biosketches). I had to adjust this budget so that it was under the $500K per year limit. I had to do a little online research to determine how the Protection of Human Subjects component pertains to my proposed project ; it turns out that my proposed project is exempt because it just reuses publicly available data that is anonymized.

I finally finished putting the grant application together yesterday, April 24. I immediately handed it off to my company’s Authorized Organization Representative (AOR), who is the one who is empowered to electronically submit the application, not the Principal Investigator (PI, the one who wrote the application; me). For this particular grant, only AORs of recognized institutions are allowed to submit grants; individuals cannot. I guess they don’t want people off the streets submitting grants, for whatever reason. Maybe it is to minimize the number of “crackpot” applications they have to sift through. You can read a little more about AORs and PIs here.

And the glitches immediately arose. When my AOR attempted to electronically submit my application, a window popped up demanding his login name and password. But when he typed in his login name and password, it told him that his login was unsuccessful. We hypothesized that perhaps I should log in, even though our understanding was that the PI (yours truly) could not submit the application. This failed, of course.

Then the AOR remembered that he had updated his account earlier that day, and this included changing his password. So, he hypothesized that perhaps he needed to use his old password. He tried this, and he logged on successfully! Another window popped up, and information seemed to be exchanged between our computer and the NIH server. Then a PDF file popped up that looked horribly formatted; it looked like raw PostScript code. This didn’t look promising. The AOR logged on to his account and looked for signs that the application had been successfully submitted, but there were none. As far as the computer system was concerned, the submission was unsuccessful.

The AOR conjectured that perhaps his password is checked in various parts of the computer system, and one part might be using his new password whereas another might be using the old password, and that this might be causing the problem. He further conjectured (conjecture upon conjecture!) that approximately one day might be required for the password change to propagate throughout the computer system. NIH may have a batch script that runs at 2 AM to propagate account changes. So, my AOR said he’d try the submission again sometime today. It is now 11:40 PM. I wonder whether he was successful. (Even if he were successful, most likely my application won’t be funded, since the competition is likely to be very fierce.)

It is for precisely these sort of glitches that I knew I had to try to submit on April 24 rather than April 27! It is out of my hands now; it now all depends on the AOR. I have done my part.

Addendum (04/26/09): It appears that the AOR was able to submit my grant successfully! He forwarded me a confirmation email that he had received.

Now I worry that my application might be rejected for some silly technical reason. E.g., I forgot to check some box in item 9b on page 16 of Form SF424. Even if the application isn’t rejected for technical reasons, it still faces fierce competition, since I am sure that many people will be applying for this grant money.

Addendum (05/02/09): I mentioned an analogy from evolutionary biology to my friend E.N. She suggested that I mention it in this post since she thought it was interesting. So, here it is.

Prof. Anonymous recently described Challenge Whores, who are scientists who submit multiple Challenge Grant applications as P.I., in the hopes that at least one will be successful. This is within the rules, as long as the applications are “scientifically distinct.” But “scientifically distinct” is a rather vague criterion. It is implied that some scientists are copying and pasting boiler plate text and changing a few words here and there to put on the appearance of being “scientifically distinct”. And for someone like me, who invested a huge amount of effort in just one application, the thought of such bending of the rules is maddening.

Evolutionary biologists distinguish between two kinds of reproductive strategies, K- versus r-strategies. Organisms that follow the K-strategy have only a few offspring, but they invest heavily in their offspring. An example of this might be humans. On the other hand, organisms that follow the r-strategy lay thousands of eggs (or spores, or seeds) and invest little or no effort in protecting and/or raising offspring. Of those thousands of eggs, only a few might survive, but this might be just enough to sustain the species. This is a sort of “shotgun” approach.

So my analogy was that I had adopted a K-strategy in my grant application, whereas the “Challenge Whores” had adopted an r-strategy. Unfortunately, the r-strategy may have a survival advantage in the Challenge Grant environment.

Addendum (05/02/09): An institutional technical glitch came up that may invalidate my grant application! Early next week I will try to address the issue, but I fear that my grant application will not make it to Peer Review.

Addendum (05/08/09): OK, the institutional glitch that came up last week was apparently due to an inconsistent DUNS number. But this was ultimately because my organization didn’t have an account on eRA Commons like it should have! The following day (May 3), we applied for the eRA Commons account. Yesterday we got confirmation that this account was set up. My AOR then immediately associated me with the company’s eRA Commons account (with some assistance from me), and we attached an updated Cover Letter to my application, and then resubmitted it. It went through again, with only two warnings (not errors). Both my AOR and I think that these two warnings are negligible, and that therefore the next step is to hope for a score from the Peer Review in June/July. Keeping my fingers crossed that there won’t be any further “glitches”.