Grant seeking in the Time of Corona

April 14, 2020

The NIH has been responding to the corona virus epidemic / crisis by shooting out various funding opportunity announcements to encourage new research on the issue. They will fund supplements, administrative and competing, as well as new grants and contracts. This is what NIH does in the face of perceived new health issues.

This response is perhaps more rapid than usual, but it is not very different from responses to other perceived crises such as the HIV/AIDS one, the SARS one, the Ebola one, the opioid one, etc. It’s not all that different from sudden political support for things such as the ongoing War on Cancer or the BRAINI scam.

As usual this sparks some minor debate in the ranks of the NIH funded science community. Is it some sort of outrage that individuals seek to create some sort of artificial, Frankenstein’s monster type of research program to respond to such funding opportunities? Is it distastefully mercenary? Will it just end up funding poorly considered, crap science?

Some seem to be arguing this line with respect to the corona virus crisis.

I am one who shakes my head ruefully and says “well, that’s how this system works”. On a tactical level my advice to grant funded PIs is to just say “well, two Aims for them, one Aim for me and let’s call it a day”.

Meaning sure, try to meet the intentions of the FOA by marrying what you already do to the interest of the day. Do some credible work on their interests – after all, at some level we do in fact work for NIH priorities which means national taxpayer priorities. We are fortunate to live in an investigator-initiated environment for the most part so is it really so terrible that once in awhile we’re sort of told what to do? I say no. Especially since we’re able to invent up the boundaries of what we’re being told to do. But this is also the opportunity to get some funding for what really interests you. To the tune of at least an Aim, probably more. How is that not a good thing?

I went through some of this as an observer and a participant PI during the HIV/AIDS version of this. Congress pushed a bunch of money at NIH for HIV/AIDS research and, the way I understand it, instructed NIH on who was going to be in charge of how much. Well, a lot of money ended up in the hands of NIDA. I can’t recall all the whys on that—those decisions were made before I was aware of this situation.

But, I very much was aware during a time when grants were supposed to come in with basically four groups or manipulations or what have you: Control, Immunodeficiency Virus Related, Drug Related, Virus + Drug. Another way to put it is: “How does Drug X affect pathogenicity in your immunodeficiency virus model?”

This is pretty specific but I think it generalizes to corona where there will be a lot of objection to people marrying The Real, Important, Critical Work on Corona Virus to Whatever They Happen To Do.

I didn’t think I was going to have an angle on corona virus at all. Shocked me to find that NIDA was actually out front. Why? Remember all that speculation back in the earlier days that Chinese men were perhaps more at risk than Chinese women due to cigarette smoking rates? And then there was some loose association of that with vaping in Scientific American (I think) speculation and boom, off to the races.

NIDA published one of the first FOA that I saw. NOT-DA-20-047 appeared March 19. Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) regarding the Availability of Administrative Supplements and Urgent Competitive Revisions for Research on the 2019 Novel Coronavirus

It’s a very broad one. Not just about smoking. They are ON it.

In order to rapidly improve our understanding of the risks, prevalence, and available control measures for 2019-nCoV in substance using or HIV-affected populations, NIDA is encouraging the submission of applications for Competitive Revisions to active grants to address the following research areas of interest:

Research to determine whether substance use (especially smoking tobacco or marijuana, vaping, opioids and other drug use) is a risk factor for the onset and progression of COVID-19.

Research on how HIV among persons who use substances may impact the onset and progression of COVID-19.

Research to understand system-level responses to COVID-19 prevention and risk mitigation in secure settings such as prisons and jails, with a particular emphasis on detainees with substance use disorder (SUD). For example:

Research to understand the respiratory effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection among individuals with substance use disorders (SUD); in particular those with nicotine, marijuana, opioid, and methamphetamine use disorders.

Research to understand how the respiratory effects of COVID-19 influences the rate of opioid overdoses both in pain patients as well as patients with an opioid use disorders and also to assess how it influences the outcomes for naloxone interventions for overdose reversal

Research to develop therapeutic approaches for comorbid SARS-CoV-2 infection and SUDs.

Research to evaluate drug-drug interaction of medications to treat SARS-CoV-2 and substances of abuse or medications to treat SUDs.

Research to understand system- or organizational-level responses to identify, prevent, or mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in service settings that serve vulnerable populations, including people who are homeless or unstably housed.

Research to understand and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 in methadone treatment programs and syringe exchange services.

Research on how potential overcrowding of emergency departments and health services will impact the treatment of opioid overdoses and of opioid use disorder

Research using ongoing studies to understand the broad impacts of COVID-19 (e.g., school closures, food insecurity, anxiety, social isolation, family loss) on neurodevelopment, substance use, substance use disorders, and access to addiction treatment.

COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders

is a webpage with more of their thinking on this.

So, is it terrible if I were to respond to this by firing the lab back up? By turning stones at my University until I found someone with a decent rodent-related set of expertises in corona viruses? Started plotting an attack on funding?

I am being ASKED to do so by the NIH. Encouraged to get in the game. And that means, you guessed it, putting the lab to work on this.

Are we the baddies?

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