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Round-the-clock effort fuels stimulus grant drive

Todd Holland

(From left) Research Management Group director Kathleen Thompson, associate director Debbie Leong-Childs and financial management analyst Mario Garcia work in a special “command center” to submit NIH Challenge Grant proposals.

Courtesy of Research Management Group

RMG staff Gladys Morales, Luke Delong and Amy Barelli take a dinner break with Dean Philip Pizzo.

BY JONATHAN RABINOVITZ

This is the moment of truth," said Linh Dinh at 5:41 p.m. on April 24, as she turned off the music in her office so she could concentrate on submitting the last of her 16 Challenge Grant proposals, an application from assistant professor of medicine Roham Zamanian, MD, to the federal government's Web site for grants.

Ten minutes later, she jumped up after getting confirmation of the grant's receipt. "Yes," she shouted, pumping her fist like a quarterback who had just thrown a touchdown pass, before collapsing back into her chair. "What a relief." She then ran down the hall to ring a bell so that her colleagues in the Research Management Group at the School of Medicine would know that yet another grant had been filed—at least the sixth such ring in that hour.

Dinh is one of the medical school's 21 research process managers who, along with the group's 29 other administrators and support staff, have been working almost around-the-clock for the last two weeks to complete the faculty's Challenge Grant proposals. The National Institutes of Health is now buried in applications for funding from the $200-million program, established as part of the stimulus package—officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009—enacted in February by Congress.

The volume is so heavy that the task of filing applications before the 5 p.m deadline on April 27 has required a heroic effort by the group, which is responsible for submitting to and administering grants from the NIH, foundations and other sources of funding.

"I've been doing this 21 years, and I have never seen anything like this," said Kathleen Thompson, the group's director. "We've pulled out all the stops."

While the Challenge Grant program is only a slice of the roughly $8.2 billion allocated to the NIH in stimulus funds for extramural research, its offer of $1-million grants over the next two years—following a five-year spell in which NIH funding dropped by 13 percent in real dollars—is eliciting as many as 10,000 proposals from across the country, according to a report in Science. That's a lot of applications for the 200 grants the NIH plans to award.

At Stanford, the medical school alone had more than 200 Challenge Grant proposals on its docket, in addition to submitting other stimulus-fund-related grants, including about 90 applications for administrative supplements and 28 for shared-instrumentation awards. That's triple the group's usual workload.

What makes the Challenge Grant proposals even more challenging is that they have their own unique requirements. Researchers, for instance, have to submit proposals that address one of 15 "challenge areas," delineated in a 50-page document, and they also have to spell out how the project will create and retain jobs, not just advance science.

So Thompson mobilized her office, setting up a command center in a conference room with nine laptops dedicated solely to the electronic submission of the grants. She trained a crew of support staff on how to do the uploading, to free up the research process managers to concentrate on finishing the grants. A bell was rung after each successful submission from the command center to let the entire office know that they had taken one step closer to the finish line.

Over the last two weeks, the research process managers could routinely be found in the office late at night or on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, made an exception to the new rule banning use of school funds for food, and provided the group with take-out dinners so that they could stay into the evening. (He stopped by to serve them Chinese food one evening, politely asking each one whether they were sure they had enough.)

The Challenge Grant effort began in March, almost immediately after the program was established. The Research Management Group e-mailed investigators about the opportunity, and soon posted a grant template for researchers to use; it underscored the page limits for different sections, and it provided boilerplate language about Stanford's role in the economy and the economic benefits to the region of medical research.

"This is not just about pushing paper," said Thompson. "It's about being thoughtful with each proposal."

Dinh, for instance, had worked closely with Zamanian, an expert in pulmonary hypertension, to develop his proposal to identify molecular signatures that could help determine the best course of treatment for different patients with the disease. That is one of the areas designated for Challenge Grant funding.

"This was my first grant ever, and it was a unique opportunity, but I didn't have much time," Zamanian said, noting that he began drafting it March 28, the day his wife gave birth to twins. He described Linh as a "phenomenal partner" who kept him going. "I didn't sleep for a couple of weeks," he said.

Thompson and others are quick to point out that the faculty members are carrying the heaviest burden, conceptualizing and writing the scientific proposals.

And other offices at the medical school have also been involved in helping to develop proposals for this and other stimulus-funding programs. According to Pizzo, this includes mobilizing faculty leaders linked to each NIH institute, having the senior deans for research coordinate some of the different efforts and allocating resources from the offices of institutional planning, communication & public affairs and medical development to help facilitate grant applications, as well as forming a leadership committee to review potentially competitive applications for major equipment, facilities construction or renovation and faculty recruitment.

"The support structure for research management that exists at Stanford is key to moving the proposals through the submission process, and this has been complemented by the dedication, hard work and knowledge of our Research Management Group, which seeks to help faculty to achieve success," Pizzo said.

Stefan Heller, PhD, associate professor of otolaryngology, had a proposal that was filed the evening of April 22 by his research process manager, Karen Mulkey. In the days leading up to the filing, Heller said he was getting e-mails at 9 p.m. and over the weekend from Mulkey. "She was amazing," he said, noting that he appreciated some of the technical requirements that she and her colleagues provided, as well as some corrections in formatting and budgeting. "Those things can actually kill a grant."

Heller's grant specifies that it will require hiring two technicians, as well as enabling him to retain a senior scientist in his lab who has only a few more months of funding remaining. His proposal is to test whether he can restore hearing in deaf gerbils by implanting stem cells. It was useful for him to draft the proposal regardless of how this one works out, he said, adding that he would undoubtedly be able to use the language for other grants.

The Challenge Grants do have some complications. Heller noted that it would have much stiffer reporting requirements than other NIH grants. He also remarked that it could be difficult to get such a major grant and then have the funding disappear in two years.

But Heller said that he could only wish he is so lucky to have such problems. "If I had known what a frenzy there was going to be around this grant, I'm not sure I would have done it," Heller said. Indeed, upon receiving word from Mulkey that his grant had been filed, he responded with an e-mail.

"Yipiehh! Thanks, All!" he wrote. "Now, light a candle for our 1:100,000 shot!"