The NIH, with a 2010 budget of $31 billion, receives nearly 80,000 applications for support each year. Eighteen-thousand external scientists are recruited annually as reviewers of those applications to ensure the funds are invested in the highest quality research and training. As anyone in biomedical research can attest, applying for an NIH grant is increasingly dependent on professional grantsmanship. Awards are made to the most meritorious scientists and projects, following a rigorous review. This competition demands that substantially more and varied skills be applied to application preparation. While no organization could afford personal professional assistance on every application, a growing number of research institutes are investing in grant development offices to support new investigators and large scale grant efforts in the over $5 million range. This strategy is paying dividends at the Moores UCSD Cancer Center.
Large-scale projects were one immediate result of the National Cancer Act signed by President Nixon on December 23, 1971. The new law provided for unique authorities of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) director, and a $100 million increase in the 1972 NCI budget, followed by similar proposed increases in the ensuing years; the creation of National Cancer Research and Demonstration Centers, originally called national cancer centers and now referred to as NCI-designated cancer centers (with an initial ceiling of $5 million per center); large construction, training and contracted research programs to foster new approaches and resources in the war on cancer. It was not unusual to hire proposal writers and management consultants to coordinate the design and assembly of these formative grant proposals that would generate the centers of interdisciplinary cancer research and care envisioned in the legislation. Program project grant (PPG) applications, with their many scientific leaders, generally have been formulated by a senior investigator and assembled with the assistance of a central grants office, the principal investigator's (PI's) staff and perhaps his or her department's administrative office.
PPGs at the NCI and the NIH have an erratic history. As far back as the 1979-80 budget year, then Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Secretary Joseph Califano expressed concern over the future of federal support for biomedical research. He called for a stabilization plan for research funding agencies of HEW. The Plan was summarized in a 1985 Institute of Medicine background report entitled Stabilizing the Funding of NIH and ADAMHA Research Project Grants, authored by Richard L. Seggel. Among Califano's concerns was the growth of centers and large-scale projects. There was a two-fold dilemma: these grants were consuming an ever larger proportion of the budget and simultaneously driving down the success rate of other types of grant proposals. In 1993, Broder (then NCI director) and Cushing wrote about the support of research project grants (RPG) versus PPGs. This was at a time when NIH was seeking to maximize the number of awards it was making against its budget, ostensibly subordinating large-scale grants in favor of lower cost RPGs. While the number of PPGs awarded was fairly stable, the authors pointed out that PPGs have a high success rate, even if their funding didn't result in the requested or recommended levels. In the 1990s, PPG applicants had a 57% rate of success in obtaining funding. In contrast, competing R01 applicants were successful only 31% of the time. The success rate for PPGs from 1987 to 1992 ran about 20 points higher than the R01 rate. Thus, the PPG was an attractive opportunity for senior investigators. However, with the budget difficulties of the 1990s, new program-type grants were not heavily marketed by the NIH.
Fast forward to the 21st century. The NIH appears to have a renewed interest in the solicitation and funding of program-type grants, perhaps as a result of a doubling in budget, although more recently that growth has diminished considerably. The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Medicine submitted a report to Congress in 2006 which stated that the NIH appropriation from 2003 to 2006 has shifted from marked growth to low or no increases. Congress doubled the budget in five years, from $13.6 billion in FY 1998 to $27.1 billion in FY 2003. Since then, growth has slowed to below the rate of inflation. The NIH issued more...