Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bioethics and the stimulus package

Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced to great fanfare its new Challenge Grants program. The grant program is funded, to the tune of 200 million dollars , by the Obama administration's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- part of the 'stimulus package' we have been hearing so much about. This new grants mechanism will support studies on what are called 'challenge topics', i.e. specific high impact biomedical, social and public health research areas.

Shockingly, bioethics is considered one of those areas. Applications are requested for proposals about informed consent and data access policies; ethical issues of emerging technologies; ethical issues in health disparities and access to participation in research; ethics of sharing of electronic health information; ethics of translating genetic information into clinical practice; the ethical issues involved in the blurring of research and treatment; and research on recontact issues in genotype and genome-wide association studies. Those of us working in international bioethics and research ethics were especially excited by the sentence " ... studies are needed to assess the impact and ethical considerations of conducting biomedical and clinical research internationally in resource-limited countries." This is certainly a challenge topic, and no doubt relevant, given the increasing amount of US-funded or facilitated research taking place around the world, especially in the world's poorer countries.

And then came the fine print. A couple of days ago, the NIH added a notice to the request for applications. It reads:

Funding for this program is provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act). The purposes of the Recovery Act are to preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery in the United States, and to provide investments needed to increase economic efficiency by spurring technological advances in science and health. Consistent with these goals, domestic (United States) institutions/organizations (i.e., those located in the 50 states, territories and possessions of the United States, Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, or District of Columbia) who are planning to submit applications that include foreign components should be aware that requested funding for any foreign component should not exceed 10% of the total requested direct costs or $25,000 (aggregate total for all subcontracts and subawards), whichever is less.

This does not mean that you cannot propose an international research ethics project involving foreign collaborators and institutions. It just means that you have to find collaborators and institutions willing to swallow the fact that, even if the topic is about health disparities and research in low-income settings, 90% of the grant money must stay in the United States. Dealing with that painful irony may be a challenge in itself.

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