Rapid Grants

From the Future Newsletter:

We assembled the program under the auspices of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, raised some initial funding, and put together the website. About 10 days after having the original idea, we launched. To help identify the most immediately deserving recipients, our criteria were quite stringent: eligibility was restricted to “principal investigators” (that is, scientists running their own labs or research programs) who were already working on COVID-19-related research (rather than those who merely had ideas as to how they could be).

The grant applications were refereed by a team of 20 mostly early-career individuals drawn from top universities and labs, who worked hard to vet and review the more than 6,000 applications received over the course of the program. Every funded application was reviewed by at least three reviewers, but unanimity was not required: the goal was to identify projects that at least one or two reviewers thought were very much worth funding. (Successful NIH grant applications, on the other hand, are typically reviewed by 10-20 scientists and program officers across three phases of review.) 

This is interesting – they set up a separate funding mechanism and disbursed funding to anyone and everyone who had COID 19 in their application. The newsletter doesn’t mention the potential impact of the “research” because the disbursal mechanism was overseen by “sectoral experts”. The noteworthy examples are:

The authors further report:

About 356 papers found via Google Scholar credit Fast Grants so far. Fast Grants awardees published a number of highly cited papers, including Lucas et al (Nature, 2020) on misfired immune responses in patients that develop severe COVID-19; Gordon et al (Nature, 2020) on the virus-host protein interactions that suggest new therapeutic strategies; Robbiani et al (Nature, 2020) on the potency of antibody responses in recovering COVID-19 patients; and Korber et al (Cell, 2020) on tracking the spread of spike variants that may be more transmissible.

Frankly, I am on the fence – should private funding be allowed in the “science-for-hire-research” in the first place? Universities then transform to “marketing places” where “VC-meets-scientists-for-research” becomes agenda driven. It is for the same reason why Ebola vaccine (endemic in Africa) never got the attention compared to coronavirus pandemic. I never encountered the VC’s bleed at heart about pressing healthcare challenges anywhere else, instead focusing efforts on digital advertisements and expediting investments in taxi firms – solutions that never had any problem before. However, it is for the first time I have noticed a major VC disbursing and documenting the potential impact of funding. I’ll keep an eye on them.