Skip the bureaucracy: This charity gives coronavirus research grants fast

It takes a really long time to get a grant for scientific research. Official advice from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is the largest source of grants for scientific research in the US, recommends that grant planning begin nine months in advance of the deadline for the grant. Time surveys suggest that top researchers may spend as much as half their time writing grant applications. That’s an inefficient system in the best of times.

During a crisis like the current one, when researchers in critical biology, medicine, and epidemiology want to attempt to answer pressing questions immediately, it’s disastrous. That’s why, two weeks ago, Patrick Collison, the CEO of the payments company Stripe, and Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, launched Fast Grants.

The concept is this: Scientists can submit an application for a grant in 30 minutes or less and get a response within two days. They can request between $10,000 and $500,000. The initial money was put up by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, including Stripe founders Patrick and John Collison, Y Combinator founder Paul Graham, and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.

The response was as you might expect: Fast Grants was immediately swamped by applications. After less than a week, the group stopped all applications, having granted all $12 million they initially had available. They may reopen applications if they secure more funding to distribute. Fast Grants are now funding a whole range of projects: vaccine development at Kyoto University; a University of Toronto study to validate a saliva test for the novel coronavirus; a project at UC Berkeley to conduct a randomized study of spread and infection rates in the Bay Area; research at Vancouver General Hospital to study heart injury in COVID-19 patients; a study at Stanford University to develop better point-of-care tests; and 62 others.

This sort of approach — giving out lots of money, very fast, with a very streamlined process for understanding what makes a grant opportunity valuable — is called rapid-response grant-making—and it’s a great way to get money into the hands of people who need it without all the bureaucracy. It also raises some bigger questions about the world’s coronavirus response and about the whole way we do science.

Grantmaking, in general, happens slowly. That’s true of grants from foundations for philanthropy and grants from the government for basic research. The months-long process of securing funding absorbs the time and attention of people whose work is sorely needed. Isn’t it much better for everyone if grants were given faster?

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