A scientist at UW Medicine runs a clinical test looking for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. | Karen Ducey/Getty Images
Researchers working on the virus shouldn’t be waiting weeks for grants.
It takes a really long time to get a grant for scientific research. Official advice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the largest source of grants for science research in the US, recommends that grant planning begin nine months in advance of the deadline for the grant. Time surveys suggest that top researchers may spend as much as half their time writing grant applications.
That’s an inefficient system in the best of times. During a crisis like the current one, when researchers in critical biology, medicine, and epidemiology want to attempt to answer pressing questions immediately, it’s disastrous.
That’s why, two weeks ago, Patrick Collison, the CEO of the payments company Stripe, and Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, launched Fast Grants. The concept is this: Scientists can submit an application for a grant in 30 minutes or less and get a response within two days. They can request between $10,000 and $500,000. The initial money was put up by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, including Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
The response was as you might expect: Fast Grants was immediately swamped by applications. After less than a week, the group stopped all applications, having granted all $12 million they initially had available. They may reopen applications if they secure more funding to distribute.
Fast Grants are now funding a whole range of projects: vaccine development at Kyoto University; a University of Toronto study to validate a saliva test for the novel coronavirus; a project at UC Berkeley to conduct a randomized study of spread and infection rates in the Bay Area; research at Vancouver General Hospital to study heart injury in Covid-19 patients; a study at Stanford University to develop better point-of-care tests; and 62 others.
This sort of approach — giving out lots of money, very fast, with a very streamlined process for understanding what makes a grant opportunity valuable — is called rapid-response grant making. It can be a great way to put money in the hands of those who need it fast and without bureaucracy. It also raises some bigger questions about the world’s coronavirus response and about the whole way we do science. Grant making, in general, happens slowly. That’s true of grants from foundations for philanthropy and grants from the government for basic research. The months-long process of securing funding absorbs the time and attention of people whose work is sorely needed. Faster grants could be better for everyone.
There are trade-offs to compressing a months-long project into a matter of hours. Each grant can’t get in-depth review, and promising ideals will inarguably be overlooked. So far, because of the overwhelming demand, less than 1 percent of grants were funded, which is a much worse rate than in typical grant making. (The team is at work securing more funding to offer some of the most promising projects that were left out.)
But despite those problems, there’s reason to believe that fast grant making beats slow grant making — and not just when we’re in the middle of an emergency. A process with quick turnaround is much more respectful of everyone’s time and ultimately healthier for science and for society. “Fast Grants is about restoring our capacity to respond to emergencies, and I believe the future will show that we will need this capacity time and again,” Cowen told me.
How Fast Grants makes grants
To be eligible for a Fast Grant, you have to be a principal investigator at an “academic institution” already at work on a project that could help in the next six months with the Covid-19 pandemic and in need of additional funding to complete it. When you submit a proposal, it’s assigned to a volunteer reviewer from a team of 20 academic experts led by Stanford biochemistry professor Silvana Konermann. The application, she told me, was “designed to take maybe 30 minutes, maybe up to an hour” for scientists, because “the people who are really busy working on Covid, they don’t have time right now to be working on grants.”
You do not need to work in the United States, and many grants have been made to researchers in other countries.
Fast Grants promised that your part of the application — where you explained the research that you were conducting — should take around 30 minutes. They then promised that their part — reviewing the grants and offering money to the most promising ones — would take less than two days (except for the very first grants, which were not made for five days so that the team of specialists reviewing the grants would have time to get a sense of how strong the average application was).
That’s a dramatic change from how most research grant making works. It takes months to prepare an application for an NIH grant. It used to be the case that more than 50 percent of NIH grant applications were approved, but research has grown and the pool of grant money hasn’t, so now it’s only about 20 percent. That means researchers have to apply to lots and lots of potential grant sources if they want to keep their projects funded. Grant applications fill a quarter to a half of a scientist’s working hours.
But there is historical precedent for the Fast Grants model. During World War II, the US created the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), whose job was to fund research and development for weapons we’d use in warfare. By most criteria, it was an astonishing success: It funded the research that became critical wartime tools like radar, as well as early research into the atomic bomb.
And the NDRC made grants practically overnight. The Fast Grants website, which cites the NDRC as an inspiration, quotes a memoir by Vannevar Bush, who led the program at the time. “Within a week NDRC could review the project,” he wrote. “The next day the director could authorize, the business office could send out a letter of intent, and the actual work could start.”
Why the obsession with speed? When it comes to the coronavirus, days matter. Epidemiologists have suggested that if we’d started social distancing just a few weeks earlier, tens of thousands of deaths could have been averted. And helping an effective test, treatment, or vaccine get developed faster could mean reopening the economy sooner — which will mean millions more Americans have jobs, food, and material security. Getting money out to scientists as fast as possible is always a matter of life or death, but right now the stakes are higher than ever.
Skeptics of rapid-response grant making argue that cutting down the approval process typically means that reviewers are forced to rely on vague signals of research quality instead of deeply digging into the relevant medicine and evaluating projects on their merits. They might, for example, approve all applications from prestigious researchers or universities, excluding important research done by a less-established researcher.
There’s some merit to this criticism, but it misses an important point: Standard grant making also has this problem, despite the months-long delays in the process at various points. In fact, studies show that above some threshold of grant quality, there is virtually no agreement among reviewers about which projects are the best ones. There’s also almost no correlation between how projects “scored” and how often the research that resulted from the projects was cited.
That suggests that lots of review time is effectively wasted. Sorting the “pretty good” projects from the bad ones is worthwhile, but after that, even spending a lot of time doesn’t result in funding the best of the best. That makes research grants uniquely well-suited for a fast grant-making program that, in an emergency like this one, should just fund everything above a basic quality threshold instead of trying to tease out which projects are best.
Fast Grants had a team of 20 researchers to review the applications, and each application they accepted was looked over by at least three of them. “It was very much rigorous peer review, it was just accelerated,” Konermann told me.
They tried to fund a range of projects. “This is a new virus, and we don’t know what is going to work,” Konermann said. “Drug development, vaccine development, very clinical work, some basic virology, understanding the immune responses and whether people become resistant … because we’re funding such a variety of approaches, the chances that at least one of them is going to meaningfully help is really good.”
Why did we need Fast Grants?
It’s great that a small group of people were able to set up and execute a project like this, distributing $12 million in two weeks to promising coronavirus projects. (Stripe provided software for the applicants and for the reviewers, Konermann’s team did the reviewing, and Tyler Cowen at Emergent Ventures, Mercatus Center, made the final decisions to distribute the money.)
It’s also deeply frustrating that they needed to. If there are thousands of projects to help with the coronavirus in progress at established research universities, many of them positioned to deliver results in the next six months, why does it take a few private philanthropists to get them the money they need? The $2 trillion US stimulus contained little money for scientific research, even though spending more on this kind of work earlier might have meant not needing to spend as much on getting businesses and consumers through a major economic downturn. Why weren’t we faster to get scientists the money for coronavirus research?
And why is scientific grant funding so slow the rest of the time?
I’ve written before about how, in the absence of a strong response from the US government, philanthropists are saving lives by taking on the responsibilities that the government should have handled. I think Fast Grants is yet another example of that.
And we should be frustrated that we needed such a project. “The NIH and the NSF have also started programs that are a lot faster than their normal processes, but those are generally just starting now,” Konermann told me. “They haven’t gone into effect as much for basic research. It was clear to me from talking to some colleagues that many of them hadn’t gotten funding yet, even though they were working on Covid.”
No scientist whose work might produce a vaccine, a treatment, or a better test should be spending weeks on grant applications or waiting weeks for answers. The government could still step in on this front.
Fast Grants ended up funding only a tiny fraction of the project proposals they got, even though Collison told me that the “median application was super strong.” In just one week, they were flooded with more than 4,000 proposals, and they spent the $12 million allocated for the project very quickly, with 67 awards made.
Rapid-response grant making shouldn’t just be for emergencies
The coronavirus crisis highlights a system that was broken long before the coronavirus crisis began.
When it takes nine months of work to apply for an NIH grant and months more to hear back about whether you received it, when scientists at the peak of their careers are spending half their time writing grant applications, that waste and delay cost us lives even when there’s no coronavirus. It means that new cancer treatments take longer to be discovered and tested. It means that bad ideas can’t be rejected quickly and good ideas can’t be published quickly.
The crisis we’re in might also present us with an opportunity to fix a broken system. If 30-minute grant applications really give reviewers enough information to identify promising ideas, and if it’s possible for reviewers to get back to grant applicants within two days, that isn’t just something we should be doing for the duration of the crisis. It’s also the direction we should be moving research toward in general.
“I think there is space for additional mechanisms that could be faster, shorter, take less time,” Konermann told me. “This was a bit of an experiment to see if that was possible at all. It ended up working better even than I had hoped. It would be nice to have a diversity of funding mechanisms.” Scientists could have more flexibility in pursuing projects and hopefully spend more of their time doing science.
“I don’t think all scientific grant making should operate on this basis. But probably 5 or 10 percent should or maybe more. Currently just about zero percent of the system uses such a speedy yet rigorous method, and when a fast-moving problem such as Covid-19 arises, we are caught unready,” Cowen told me.
And even if the government does not make any such changes, there are some important lessons here for philanthropists. Responding quickly to grant applicants has a lot of benefits. It means you don’t waste the time of potential recipients, and projects don’t spend months lingering in limbo.
It is possible to get things done much faster than we’re accustomed to, and that’s a lesson we can hopefully carry with us long past the end of the current crisis.
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