Funding Delays Are Slowing Scientific Progress

It shouldn't take scientists 20 months to navigate the grant process
August 28th 2023

This piece originally appeared in The Washington Post.

The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health — two key federal science agencies — are frequently described as the world’s gold standard for scientific funding. Operationally, however, NIH and the NSF are not keeping pace with progress at the scientific frontier.

Consider this: A researcher who applies for an NIH grant today might expect to receive funding up to 20 months from now. Award delays have many causes: Peer review takes time and agencies often need to wait for congressional appropriations. But long lags are a problem — windows of opportunity to pursue research leads can close.

The NSF and NIH are often criticized for these delays. But at the end of the day, these agencies are constrained by what Congress allows them to do. Unfortunately, when Congress pays attention to NIH and the NSF, it is often to impose impediments and red tape. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), chairman of the Senate health panel, is stalling President Biden’s nominee for NIH director until the White House proposes a comprehensive drug pricing policy — an issue outside NIH’s control.

Rather than throw up roadblocks, lawmakers should send the agencies — and the public — a message: Their paramount goal should be to accelerate scientific progress. Three specific reforms could help:

First, Congress should give NIH flexibility to bypass peer review.

The pandemic highlighted the importance of expedient funding. This is why the privately funded Fast Grants program, which made award decisions within two weeks, won praise. Less well known is that the NSF also makes some awards within one month — via RAPID and EAGER grants. During the early days of covid, these mechanisms enabled the NSF to get money out the door much faster than did NIH.

RAPID and EAGER grants are possible because the NSF has congressional authority to bypass external peer review and fund projects based solely on internal staff approval. Applications come in, NSF staff assess them and money is disbursed.

Congress does not afford NIH this same option, but it should. For the moment, NIH has some discretion — which it should be able to use more often — to pilot more expedient grant programs, as it did with the RADx program during the pandemic.

Second, Congress should give the NSF the authority to quickly reject low-quality proposals.

The first time I applied for an NIH grant, it was unscored: The agency didn’t think it was promising enough to justify discussion among peer reviewers. Rejection stings, but turning away some applications right off the bat reduces administrative burdens — on agencies as well as peer reviewers. In contrast, Congress requires the NSF to fully review all applications that are submitted. Because many of these are low-quality, this inflates workloads and presumably lengthens the time it takes to consider more promising proposals. The NSF needs the same ability of NIH to quickly reject some proposals.

Finally, both NIH and the NSF should give researchers greater ability to change course in their work when needed by targeting a larger share of their funds toward individual scientists rather than specific projects.

Traditionally, at both agencies, scientists are awarded money to accomplish project-specific aims that they detail in their proposals. Presumably, this guards against wasting public dollars. Such grants, to be sure, have supported research of enormous value. But this approach ignores the reality that the scientific frontier is constantly moving. The most promising project I could pursue today might well change by the time my application is approved, and it is even more likely to shift by the end of a five-year grant period.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Sloan Research Fellowships, for instance, are person-specific awards that can cover any of a fellow’s research expenses. When I was a junior faculty member, this allowed me to focus time and effort on my most promising ideas. NIH’s R35 mechanism and NSF’s Alan T. Waterman Award are similar — and they demonstrate that both agencies could pilot more such awards.To the outside eye, these reforms might seem modest. But their benefits would compound over time. Quick funding for promising projects, along with the ability to course-correct, could accelerate scientific progress and generate enormous benefits for society. The question Sanders and other lawmakers should be asking NIH and the NSF is: How can we help you make scientific progress happen faster?