Stimulating? Yes. But Will It Work?

President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has created a frenzy among science and medical researchers, and those who support them.

By Paul Thomas, Senior Editor

We’ve never seen anything like this before. The U.S. scientific and biomedical community is suddenly flushed with funding, and the money’s got to get spent within the next two years. Let the games begin.

President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) — aka, The Stimulus Package — has designated mountains of grant money for science — for the life sciences community, the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) slice of the pie is $10.4 billion. That’s billion with a “b”.

Wrapping your head around the stimulus package is like grabbing a tiger by the tail. The ARRA was signed into law on Feb. 19, and hardly a day has gone by since without some NIH announcement about new funding opportunities, guidance and requests for applications on its Web site or on email lists. Some proposal deadlines have already passed, while most others fall within the next few months. Acting NIH director Raynard Kington has said, “We expect to spend as much as possible in Fiscal Year 2009.” NIH will favor projects that address problems “where progress can be expected in two years.”

At least some of the funds will make an immediate, concrete impact. NIH has earmarked $1 billion of its $10.4 billion for construction and improvement of biomedical research facilities that are not located on the NIH campus, and another $300 million for the purchase of new scientific equipment. Institutions can apply for up to $15 million.

For biomedical researchers that have gotten used to years of half-hearted and unpredictable federal funding, the amount of money now for the taking is stunning. “This is a tremendous opportunity,” Judy Glaven, an associate dean at Harvard Medical School who is leading her institution’s collaboration on stimulus projects, told the news media. “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.”

That’s the politically correct thing to say, but what’s really going to happen? To find out, I spoke with two guys in the trenches — Bob Burgoyne and Roy Martin — who help to head up Waters Corp.’s life sciences marketing efforts and who have become very popular of late. “We have a different level of attention from the research community that we haven’t seen before,” says Burgoyne.

Both men admit that the stimulus has been a much-needed shot in the arm for the life sciences research community. It’s given researchers a chance to aim higher, to kick the tires on that fancy new mass spectrometer that they had only ogled in the past. “They used to have to claw for the funds just to keep their labs going,” says Martin. “Now they’re saying, ‘How are we going to leapfrog into the next generation?’ ”

The immediate beneficiaries of the stimulus will, of course, be academic and other NIH-affiliated research laboratories. But, given the fact that university-industry partnerships are commonplace today, drug manufacturers will notice a difference in research and contract partners.

Are we entering an era of lavish and unrestrained spending (i.e., waste)? Burgoyne and Martin admit that there’s a “feeding frenzy” out there, with staid academics and other researchers clamoring for a slice of the pie. And some of them have “no clue” about how to go about applying for the funds, or how to drive the latest mass spec, Martin says. But grant recipients will have to show proven results in short order, which fits a trend that Martin sees among researchers. “A lot of top-end researchers are all of a sudden getting the accountability bug,” he says. In this way, they’re much more “corporate” in their approach.

The big question surrounding the entire stimulus, of course, is its eventual ROI. Ages hence, Republicans and Democrats will debate the sweep and impact of the bill. Who’s to say? For our concerns, will the fruits of this research be ripe for the drug industry to pick? We’ll know more in two years.

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