The Challenge Grant RFA is out and....hmmm, eeenteresting!

Mar 05 2009 Published by under Careerism, Grant Review, NIH, NIH Budgets and Economics

The RFA created for the Challenge Grants is out (RFA-OD-09-003). All the goods are here including the Opening Date (first time a grant can be submitted) of March 27 and the deadline of April 27. As you might have guessed these will be squeezed into the current Council round with initial review in Jun/Jul, Council in August and first possible funding date of Sept 30, 2008.
Then one immediately glances over the other relevant bits of information:

Budget and Project Period. Budget requests should be commensurate with project needs up to a two-year project period. The requested budget may not exceed $500,000 total costs per year for a maximum of $1,000,000 total costs over a two-year project period.
Page Limits: The Research Plan is limited to 12 pages


12 pages.
Okay, the shorter apps are here, don't panic, don't panic....
Page down to Section IV, Part 6. Hmm, all kinds of new stuff, read carefully. Here are some highlights.

Item 8. Bibliography and Literature Cited: Limited to one page.

hold on, there's a good reason for this...

Biographical Sketches: Each biographical sketch is limited to two pages. The number of publications cited in the PD/PI's biosketch is limited to ten or fewer items. PD/PIs should cite their most relevant publications and those that highlight the significance of past accomplishments.

No complaints here. Minimizes swingage...

Research Plan: The Research Plan is comprised of special sections noted below and is limited to a total of 12 pages, including tables, graphs, figures, diagrams, and charts.

3. Background and Significance: Omit
4. Preliminary Studies/Progress Report: Omit

Yowsa. These will certainly be interesting to review, won't they?

5. Research Design and Methods
Item 5 consists of the following 4 elements and is limited to 12 pages: A statement of the Challenge Area and specific Challenge Topic; The Challenge and Potential Impact; The Approach; and Timeline and Milestones. ... Figures and illustrations may be included but must fit within the 12-page limit. Do not include links to Web sites for further information.

This almost makes me want to take up the Challenge just so I can see if I can write one of these strange beasts.
Any non-NIH'ers out there recognize this format from some other granting agency? Have we anything to lean on here?

21 responses so far

  • neurolover says:

    I'm thinking that they're basically requiring you to integrate background into "the challenge & potential impact" an preliminary data into "the approach." The question I'd want ot know (if I were reviewing or writing) is how detailed the "approach" should be, and whether they're going to allow a figure showing that you've made the measurement to describe the approach, or instead require you to give inane details about how to make the measurement.

  • The new biosketch format is the same as used by NSF, from the sounds. Not having background and significance seems to make these impossible to put in a larger context if they are not directly in your field. Yikes.

  • Orac says:

    Forget the bizarre format, did you see how long the list of grant topics is and how specific a lot of the topics are? Holy moly.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Forget the bizarre format, did you see how long the list of grant topics is and how specific a lot of the topics are? Holy moly.
    Oh, you mean you didn't get a call from your friendly PO asking for exact details on your next exciting research directions??????

  • Any non-NIH'ers out there recognize this format from some other granting agency? Have we anything to lean on here?
    It's based on the EUREKA format.

  • To quote directly from the RFA:
    1. "Preliminary data are not required but may be included, if necessary to demonstrate the feasibility of the proposed studies."
    2. "No detailed scientific plan should be provided, but timelines must be presented."
    As a new investigator, this plus the 12 page limit seems ideal but it will be interesting to see how the money ends up getting distributed. There's certainly not enough in the pot to fund the gazillion applications they are sure to receive. The cynical/jaded part of me thinks that Mediocre Idea + Tons of (Not Required) Preliminary Data + Extensive Track Record will still = Funding for Already Well-Funded Old White Dudes ... but I hope I'm wrong.

  • whimple says:

    The most cynical/jaded opinion around here is that the grants have *already* been awarded, and the RFA just reflects formal compliance with due process.

  • sciencegirl says:

    re; whimple
    OMG. I never thought I was an optimist before I read that.

  • whimple: I wouldn't be at all surprised. Yet another nail in the coffin for new investigators ...

  • Pinus says:

    I know that when I read through a certain institute that I am funded by, for nearly half of them, I could name the lab that they were speaking of.

  • Pinus says:

    But, I might add..I love playing the role of spoiler.

  • Alex says:

    So, help a n00b out. I'm a physicist at a primarily undergraduate institution. I work on computational and theoretical issues relevant to fluorescence microscopy. Right now I'm working on some image analysis algorithms that will be used for new microscopy techniques that generate images with resolution of 40 nm or better. Some of the early studies with these techniques focus on mitochondria, and there's work on developing the technique for imaging deep into tissue.
    I can make the case that this would be relevant to challenge area 06-OD-101 (Development of new tools and technologies to interrogate human mitochondrial function in vivo.) However, I don't know how relevant is relevant enough. I wouldn't be taking any pictures or building any microscopes, but I would be writing the software needed for the new tools. (With these techniques it isn't just a matter of taking the picture and looking at it. You have to take a bunch of different images and analyze each one and piece together all the data the right way to infer the high resolution information.)
    Is it a waste of time for me to apply for this? I'm a new investigator at a PUI, and all I'd have for this project is myself, a few undergrads (one of them damn good!), and a couple of M.S. students. I'm working on something relevant to the description of the challenge area but not dead-center on-target. Should I bother with this, or should I take my ideas and get to work on a SCORE grant?

  • Alex says:

    Additional info: I do have preliminary results, in the form of calculations showing which types of algorithms are most useful for which situations. I just don't have any specific algorithms benchmarked for performance yet (although I might, just might, have one study done by late April). Some of these results were published in Biophysical Journal, which is (by the standards of my field) the next step down from CNS. I do have a grant already (new investigator award from a private foundation) for a related project, and I recently got an award targeted at new investigators doing physics at primarily undergraduate institutions.
    So I have some credibility by the standards of my field and type of institutions. But I have no illusions that a junior biophysicist at a PUI, even a really good one, can compete in a program that is targeted at the bigshots with the big labs.

  • Dude, this is totes the kind of shit NIH loooooves! Talk to the PO, but if I were you, I would definitely apply.

  • whimple says:

    Dude, you have no chance in hell. Your application is a total waste of your time. You need a million dollars over two years to write software with undergrads? Please.

  • qaz says:

    Alex the Physicist -
    I don't know how NIH is going to treat the Challenge grants (none of us really do), but unfortunately, I think you'd have a hard time in the R01 game and I'm not sure it's worth your trouble. On the other hand, I think you have a PERFECT application for NSF. It is not clear how NSF is going to handle Challenge grants, but PUI, undergrads, cross-discipline (physicist helping biology) are all major positives in NSF's book. I would recommend calling up some NSF program officers and asking them to point you in the right direction.
    Good luck!

  • Alex says:

    Dude, you have no chance in hell. Your application is a total waste of your time. You need a million dollars over two years to write software with undergrads? Please.
    Well, obviously I was going to ask for far less than the maximum amount. And I was going to hire a couple of Masters students. And I'm not just going to write software. I'm also doing mathematical work on establishing what the fundamental limits are on this technique, to produce new results indicating what can and can't be done. So this won't just be writing software to implement old ideas. I'll also be generating new knowledge on the limits of different imaging techniques.
    I know the NSF game, and I will play it. But I also know that NIH has R15 and SCORE grants for undergraduate institutions and minority-serving institutions. So I figured maybe some of the Challenge grants would go in those directions?
    The problems with NSF are:
    1) They don't like funding faculty salary for course releases. Yet they say they want PUI faculty to do research. If you want somebody at an institution with a heavy teaching load to do research, you need to pay our salaries. If you don't want to do that, fine, don't do it, but then don't say you want to pay for us to do research.
    2) They want to see a lot of time spent on outreach and other broader impacts stuff. In principle I have no objection to these things. But if they are being stingy with the time they'll give me, then they can't expect a person with a heavy teaching load to do the research AND develop an outreach program. NIH SCORE grants, OTOH, just give you time to do your research.
    I'll call a program officer next week and figure out whether this is worth pursuing or not.

  • Pinus says:

    You can't win if you don't play.
    If you have the time to write this up, do it. If it fails, you have a grant that you can convert to NSF or whatever else you want to.

  • qaz says:

    I just had the most depressing conversation with a program officer at an unnamed institute. He said that over the last few days, over 100 people had called him to ask about challenge grants. He is predicting more than several hundred applications per challenge. There are >200 challenges. $200M and $1M per award. Doing the math, I get a

  • qaz says:

    Sorry that should have been...
    Doing the math, I get a less than one award per challenge and a chance of less than one in two to three hundred. Is it still worth applying at that rate?

  • LincolnX says:

    Qaz, you have done precisely the correct math. My advice is, if you have something that you can with little effort recast or almost ready that fits into one of the areas then go for it. Otherwise, spend your time on it realizing that you are more likely getting your ideas in order for a conventional grant.
    I am personally grateful that congress has provided this money, but I think NIH is mishandling the opportunity. The money should have been used to fund proposals that did not meet the payline, then increase student and postdoc support and to increase the amount administrative supplements and competitive revisions. Many of the Challenge grant descriptions smack of a laundry list of very specific niches that looked tailored to specific labs.

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