HMS Looks to Stimulus Funding To Save Jobs, Advance Science

Administration Coordinating Resources for Faculty

Donald Coen,  professor of biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at Harvard Medical School (HMS) in Boston, may be able to save a skilled research job and restore another in his lab. Isaac Kohane, co-director of the HMS Center for Biomedical Informatics, hopes to hire and train new bioinformatics staff. Peter Sorger, HMS professor of systems biology, wants to buy a powerful data storage system from a U.S. company to share with his colleagues.

These are a few possible local results of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. Signed into law on Feb. 17, the stimulus bill injects an extra $21.5 billion into federal research and development funding, including $10 billion in extramural funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the biggest source of HMS support.

“Everyone is happy that science is so obviously a priority in this bill,” said Rebecca Ward, executive director of Systems Biology at HMS.

The unprecedented surge of money for health and science research comes after nearly six years of increasingly lean federal funding and while HMS departments are grappling to come up with a potential 10 percent budget cut.

“This is a tremendous opportunity,” said Judy Glaven, associate dean for basic and interdisciplinary research, who is leading the communication and collaboration on stimulus projects at HMS and with the main campus. “It’s going to drive important science that wasn’t possible because of restricted funds. It will create real job ­opportunities for postdocs and others, who are at risk of not having a job and desperately in need of funding to stay on and weather the economic downturn.”

For researchers, the NIH stimulus money means funding may be available for high-scoring grant applications or renewals that narrowly missed because of long-standing NIH budget shortfalls, for supplementary funding to ongoing projects big and small, and for new “challenge” grants in priority areas. An additional $1 billion goes to major new equipment and to renovation and construction.

Hurry-up Funding

The stimulus money brings a temporary acceleration and culture shift in the funding cycle—tight deadlines, faster reviews, greater oversight requirements, and early uncertainty about rules and procedures, said Deborah Good, associate director of HMS Sponsored Programs Administration, which provides support and compliance oversight for public and private research funding.

“It’s all happening so fast that literally every day it changes,” Good said. Everyone’s excited about it. It’s a jolt to the research community.” The website of Sponsored Programs has frequent updates on its ARRA (stimulus) funding resources page and links to the Harvard provost’s stimulus pages.

All ARRA awards must fit the law’s intent, which aims to stimulate the economy immediately by creating new jobs and advancing science, said Sally Rockey, acting NIH deputy director for extramural research.

Other differences for researchers include a two-year budget instead of four-year awards and quarterly reports on financial expenditures, obligations and job creations due 10 days after the end of each quarter. NIH also wants to be able to continue its usual annual review and incremental release of awards, Rockey said. To do that within the two-year time frame for the new challenge grants, the NIH aims to award all the grants by September, greatly speeding up the typical review process.

“Everything will have received a peer review,” Rockey said. “We think that much of the ARRA funding will go to meritorious grants that have been reviewed but not yet funded, but the mix between those grants, supplements and other types of awards can be different for every institute and center.”

At HMS, a stimulus team of basic science administrators convened by Glaven is meeting weekly to coordinate and support Quad-based researchers seeking ARRA funds. Coordination is especially important on construction and renovation grants. Only a limited number of submissions are allowed from each institution, which at HMS includes the Dental School and Primate Center.

Challenge Grant Challenge

Stimulus funding updates are coming in from all directions as agencies scramble to flesh out details of the funding criteria and rules. NIH, NSF, and other research agencies are issuing frequent guidance, requests for applications, and clarifications on their websites and through e-mail lists.

Glaven urged faculty to communicate with program officers at the NIH and NSF to run ideas by them and learn what is possible in different areas. “Communication in both directions will help bring clarity to how this is going to work,” she said.

HMS administrators are bracing for what they hope will be an unprecedented number of challenge grant applications due at the end of April. “There is no higher priority than to get these grants in on time and reviewed,” said Sarah Axelrod, director of cost analysis at HMS, at a March 13 forum held by Sponsored Programs to share what is coming, what to expect, and how to prepare.

The impact on the HMS budget and pending schoolwide job cuts remains uncertain. “It is almost impossible at this point to project the impact of stimulus money,” Axelrod said. “We do know it will lessen a very tight AY ’10 School budget, but at this point, no one is sure what type of stimulus funds will flow to which departments.” All ARRA funds with the exception of shared instrumentation and infrastructure grants will bring in the indirect costs that support the School’s infrastructure, she said.

Many people are worried that a stimulus-fueled boom will be followed by a crash when the money runs out, anxiety that is partly fueled by a rough landing after the last surge in the NIH budget ended six years ago. “We all know that the big discoveries take time and sustained effort,” Ward said.

The fact that the government has identified a key role for biomedical research in our national recovery effort sets the stage for more consistent funding over time, said Kevin Casey, Harvard’s associate vice president for government, community, and public affairs. In a small step toward that end, the NIH ’09 appropriations were just finalized with a 3 percent increase, or $900 million, in the baseline budget, he said.

“The NIH has been flat-funded for five years, and the inflationary erosion has made the peer-review process almost a competition without winners,” Casey said. “The President and Congress are hoping to liberate cutting-edge scientific ideas stuck in a backlog of top-notch proposals and get them into the lab to foster new progress.”

 

5 May 2009

Stimulus Update: Wave of Grants Submitted, Word of First Award Received

Three days after the first major federal economic stimulus grant deadline, the HMS Sponsored Programs Administration held its second open forum to provide information and updates. The April 30 session also introduced Stephanie Wasserman, the new director of Sponsored Programs Administration.

A preliminary tally shows that HMS researchers have submitted about one half of the total Harvard applications for research funding so far under the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), said Deborah Good, associate director of Sponsored Programs (above & Focus, March 20). As of May 1, HMS researchers had submitted about 250 grant proposals. The bulk of research proposals submitted since early March include the new category of challenge grants that were due April 27 and ongoing administrative supplements to existing grants.

News of the first HMS stimulus award arrived a few days later. It will fund a previously reviewed project to develop a mouse model of hepatitis C virus replication in the lab of Priscilla Yang, HMS assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics.

The extra accountability and reporting requirements of ARRA awards will be handled by a designated group of “stimulus project specialists” to be hired and funded by an additional 3.5 percent of direct costs from those grants, according to an April 17 memo from Harvard University provost Steven Hyman. The extra 3.5 percent is now included as a budget item in most stimulus applications.

“The 3.5 percent has raised a lot of concern,” said Okey Agba, HMS financial dean. “We currently do not have the resources to meet the compliance and reporting needs. I can assure you that no penny of this will go to solve the School’s financial position. These moneys will be applied to that specific task or the grants will not be charged.” In contrast, indirect costs from federal research grants account for nearly half of the annual HMS operating budget, which may benefit from stimulus awards.

Two free day-long training classes for administering sponsored research at Harvard will be offered June 8 in Cambridge and June 19 at HMS, said Jeff Seo, HMS director of research compliance.

For updated stimulus information, see the HMS ARRA (Stimulus) Resource (www.hms.harvard.edu/spa/funding/stimulus.shtml) and the Harvard University and Federal Stimulus Funding website (http://research.harvard.edu).

UPDATE: In a May 20 update, the HMS Sponsored Programs Administration alerted research administrators that the NIH will not provide direct costs for the extra administrative requirements of ARRA and advised researchers to discontinue the estimated budget line for the stimulus project specialist in their grant applications. For the latest information, see http://www.hms.harvard.edu/spa/funding/stimulus.shtml.

—Carol Cruzan Morton

(Originally published in Focus, the twice monthly newsletter for the Harvard medical community)
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