WASHINGTON-Her scientific challenge is daunting: to understand better how the AIDS virus is transmitted among heterosexuals. But an even bigger problem facing Margaret Fischl was her prolonged absence from the task to prepare her application for renewed support from the National Cancer Institute.
An associate professor of internal medicine and director of the AIDS Clinical Research Program at the University of Miami Medical Center, Fischl knew the renewal process also would mean a new round of reviews and a prolonged battle over budgets. This year, however, she was greeted with a pleasant surprise as she traveled along the funding treadmill: the likelihood of 10 years of uninterrupted support.
Fischl is one of the first recipients of the MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health. The new extramural grants, called by an acronym for Method to Extend Research in Time, officially went into effect July 1, and by late November almost 200 scientists had been selected for long-term support by one of the 12 institutes.
"The idea is to free up the very best scientists, to allow them to spend less time at the writing table preparing grant applications and more time doing research," explained Melvin Fish, special assistant to the NIH deputy director of extramural research and training. The awards are also expected to ease the paperwork load on NIH staff and review committees. Grant proposals must be detailed and can often exceed 250 pages.
Scientists cannot apply for MERIT awards. The staff and advisory council for each institute select recipients from the pool of re searchers already approved for the usual grants lasting three to five years. The director of the institute makes the final decision. To obtain an extension, scientists need only submit a short progress report, a one-page research plan. and a pro-posed budget for their continuing efforts. The advisory council at each institute recommends to the director whether to extend support.
The new program is open to criticism because it prolongs the interval between the normal competitive peer review by NIH study sections. But officials strongly de fend their emphasis on past performance and the prospects of continued productivity in making selections. The award has also triggered concern that the long-term commitments will reduce the amount of money available to other investigators. Fish discounted those fears.
"We're not going overboard in making these awards," he said. "In any event, these are the very best people. They would compete successfully anyway."
Fish said that, although renewed funding is not guaranteed, the track record of the investigators makes rejections extremely un likely. Recipients are also permitted to carry over funds from one year to the next.
The new award does not apply to project grants. Fish said that an NIH management committee will examine that issue and others at a meeting this month, but he speculated that a different review procedure might be needed to make the larger and more complex project grants eligible for MERIT awards.
Fischl said the award will allow her to pursue a "much more extensive" research program. Working within a rapidly advancing field, she said she welcomed the opportunity to pursue new developments without undue concern that she would be straying from her grant.
Donald Reed, a biochemist at Oregon State University working on biochemical events associated with cell death, said his award from the National Institute of Environ-mental Health Sciences will allow him to make better decisions on hiring and other financial matters. 'Sometimes it takes a while to find the right people to do the re search," he said. "Now, because I can carry money over to the next year, I won't be forced to make a hasty decision. I suspect that people will keep a cushion that will a! low them to turn up the effort when it's needed."
"The awards should benefit the entire biomedical community," predicted Brian Kimes, who heads the Extramural Research Program within the Cancer Institute's Division of Cancer Biology and Diagnosis. Greater stability in grants sup-port, he said, will encourage scientists to take risks without fear that one misstep will jeopardize their chances for future funding.
Fish estimated that NIH will make a total of 450 to 500 MERIT awards annually, a small portion of the 6,200 new grants to be awarded this year. The National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke is not participating because of its Jacob Javits Neuroscience Award, begun in 1984 at the behest of Congress. That award, which funds researchers for seven years, will continue.
Bello is a freelance science writer in Washington, D.C.