From Nature News (Nature 460, 676; 2009), by Meredith Wadman:
Applicants for the coveted Challenge Grants issued by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act learned the peer-review scores for their proposals late last month. Yet they received little in the way of certainty over whether those scores will translate into money come September, when the NIH will announce which grants it plans to fund.
Competition for the US$1-million, two-year awards is fierce — the agency in Bethesda, Maryland, received more than 21,000 applications, and the NIH director’s office will fund only about 1% of these. With ordinary grants, applicants can usually tell if their grant is fundable as soon they receive their percentile score because they already know the designated ‘payline’, or percentage of fundable applications. The NIH has designated an initial $200 million of $10.4 billion in economic stimulus funds for the grants, but with so many variables at play in allocating the stimulus money, predicting whether a given score will land funding is almost impossible — meaning that those with percentile scores in the mid-single digits are left hanging.
Meanwhile, the burden on the thousands of grant reviewers has, according to some, turned out to be bearable. Gary Johnson, chairman of the pharmacology department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, told the NIH that he could review up to five Challenge Grant applications. “And they only gave me a couple,” he says. “I don’t know anyone who was overwhelmed by reviewing, because there was an overwhelming agreement of investigators to participate in the process.”