As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to strain research operations, the federal government is responding with flexibilities for funding applicants and awardees as well as with significant new funding opportunities. Recognizing and accessing these opportunities can help universities, academic medical centers, and other institutions secure new funding, expand research programs, and contribute to the national effort to redress pandemic harms. This Alert highlights some of the new funding appropriated under the supplemental spending laws passed within the last six weeks – including over three-and-a-half billion dollars for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – and describes current efforts to secure additional funding of up to ten times that amount. The Alert also describes specific methods, with a focus on the NIH, available now to obtain these resources.
Congress has appropriated supplemental funding of more than four billion dollars spread across seven NIH components as well as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other civilian agencies supporting research. Some of this money may be transferred through to other government components and same may move directly to extramural research recipients. This funding is in addition to the existing annual appropriations these agencies receive for research, much of which may be directed to COVID activities as a matter of agency discretion. Often, this money is available only to institutions with active funding who may seek additional support through either an “administrative supplement” or a “competitive supplement,” also known as a “competitive revision.” Essentially, these mechanisms operate as follows:
- Administrative Supplement: Expands funding for an existing award to meet increased costs that are within the scope of the approved project, but that were unforeseen when the new or competing renewal application was awarded; these awards are non-competing and generally handled entirely by NIH funding institute staff and without competitive peer review.
- Competitive Revision: Expands scope of an existing award for something not previously peer reviewed; these awards are competitive and must go through peer review before award. [For COVID-19 activities, NIH has announced that it is planning a simplified version of peer review, e.g., with funding institute staff, within sixty (60) days if possible.]
For example, the NIH Common Fund, which is housed in the NIH Director’s Office, received $30 million to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically and internationally. NIH has announced that it is using these funds for innovative research on COVID-19 and its underlying virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Because the last quarter of the federal government’s fiscal year is fast approaching, and because of the need to expedite funds distribution, the majority of funding awarded this year will be to researchers already receiving funding and who may seek administrative supplements or competitive revisions. NIH has announced that funding opportunities for wholly new research projects under the Common Fund are expected to begin in Fiscal Year 2021.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) also is using existing funding opportunities to enable distribution of new COVID-19 funding, and it has announced that its Rapid Response Research (RAPID) funding mechanism will be used for new proposals with severe urgency and those for quick-response research. Generally, requests for RAPID proposals are for support of up to $200K and up to one year in duration, but NSF has announced flexibility – “Well-justified proposals that exceed these limits may be entertained.”
For funding opportunities, agencies like NSF and NIH are posting funding opportunity announcements on a rolling basis through their standard processes, such as the NIH Guide. For funding already awarded, the public may access NIH information through its database of research grants and contracts, NIH Reporter, which includes information about research awards made with supplemental funding, and through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) public database of information about awards made with the COVID-19 supplemental funding.
Many view the new funding as insufficient. The leaders of the House committee with oversight for the NIH and the primary drafters of the 21st Century Cures Act spearheaded a bipartisan letter to Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader McCarthy on April 29 seeking an additional $26 billion for research, to address, among other concerns, lost productivity as stay-at-home orders and other constraints restrict research progress. Shortly before this, on April 27, the Ad Hoc Group for Medical Research, an advocacy group representing a broad base of academic, research, and patient organizations, wrote a detailed request to House and Senate leaders seeking an additional thirty-one billion dollars in supplemental funding for NIH specifically. While House and Senate appropriators have not released specific language with additional funding, these requests, combined with public demands for research into treatment and prevention of COVID-19, suggest that a supplemental package will include additional research funding. If so, it is expected that much of this will be money that can be carried over to future fiscal years and be made available for research activities this fall and in later years.
Examples of NIH Funding Opportunities for existing awardees:
- NIH/OD, Notice of Special Interest (NOSI): Availability of Emergency Competitive Revisions for Research on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
- NIH/Multiple Components, Emergency Competitive Revision to Existing NIH Awards (Emergency Supplement - Clinical Trial Optional)
- NIH/NIGMS, Notice of Special Interest (NOSI) regarding the Availability of Urgent Competitive Revisions for Research on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) and the Causative Virus SARS-CoV-2
Examples of NIH Funding Opportunities for new applications:
- NIH/NIAID, Emergency Awards: Rapid Investigation of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) (R21 Clinical Trial Not Allowed)
- NIH/NIBIB, Fast-Track Program for COVID-19 Test Development and Distribution
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