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Recovery Act, New Challenge Grants Are Scientists' Silver Lining

15 March 2009. In a rare piece of good funding news for schizophrenia researchers, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has announced that it will use its portion of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) monies included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) to advance its latest strategic plan (Insel, 2009) and to fund a new Challenge Grants program.

“The NIMH has just completed a strategic plan which lays out an ambitious agenda for the next five years,” says Thomas Insel, NIMH director. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will give us a chance to jumpstart many of the objectives of the plan.”

For biomedical scientists, who have endured a six-year string of federal budgets in which research funding lost ground to inflation (see SRF related news story), the recent global economic downturn is just the latest chapter in a long, sad story. But in signing the ARRA into law in February, President Obama made good on his Inaugural Day pledge to “restore science to its rightful place” in dollars and cents, providing the NIH with $10.4 billion to be spent over the next two years.

The NIMH’s new strategic plan identifies mapping neural circuitry, advancing early detection of psychiatric disorders, personalization of therapies, and a “broader use of effective psychosocial interventions” as the agency’s top priorities. In addition to targeting new grants and supplementing currently funded projects that address these goals, the NIMH will launch its own version of NIH Challenge Grants, a new two-year R01 program that will provide scientists with up to $500,000 per year for two years.

The ARRA is being implemented at a dizzying pace, and many details of how the NIH funds will be apportioned across agencies are still in flux. The NIMH recovery package website emphasizes that, because they form part of an economic stimulus package, the ARRA monies the agency receives cannot be distributed following “business as usual.”

According to the website, “[t]he Recovery Act stipulates that all stimulus funds must be obligated by Sept 30, 2010. NIH has issued guidance (NOT-OD-09-054) outlining the review, scoring, and appeals process for stimulus applications. In addition, there will be extensive reporting requirements for these funds so that the outcomes of this investment can be monitored.” Underscoring the fluidity of the funding situation, the agency urges scientists to “check the NIMH web site, including this page, frequently for updates on additional stimulus programs” that will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Since taking office, Obama has stressed that ambitious capital outlays for science and technology are as vital to long-term economic recovery as is cost-cutting for the short term, a view echoed by Insel. “We are enormously grateful for this opportunity to use recovery funds to support research,” he says. “In a sense, we are helping the nation recover while helping people with mental disorders recover.”—Pete Farley.

Insel TR. Translating scientific opportunity into public health impact: a strategic plan for research on mental illness. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2009 Feb;66(2):128-33.

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