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“Fast Grants,” slow grants, HRSA grants, and COVID-19

In “What We Learned Doing Fast Grants,” Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen, and Patrick Hsu do something I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, do: write a post-mortem on their giving process and describe what the process has taught them. Their second sentence says, “From the beginning, the institutional response has been lethargic.” I can’t recall ever seeing any funder, foundation or government, emphasize speed: most emphasize process. Speed is rarely a consideration in most grant making efforts—though it should be. Presumably grants are being made to address some critical issue, but what’s being left undone, based on slowness? Most federal grant proposals have an evaluation section, but few, if any, federal funders appear to evaluate themselves.

Most grants, from a funder’s perspective, are about signaling and covering one’s potential downside risk—a point I’ve seen few others make. That works sub-optimally, but seemingly well enough, in normal times. In times of crisis, though, the patterns and habits developed in normal times can be not only dysfunctional, but disastrous. I don’t think the average funder or applicant is much attuned to this issue, which makes me pessimistic about change. Yet the COVID-19 epidemic shows that the costs of overall bureaucratic lethargy is high:

we found that scientists — among them the world’s leading virologists and coronavirus researchers — were stuck on hold, waiting for decisions about whether they could repurpose their existing funding for this exponentially growing catastrophe.” Essentially, no one would, or could, make decisions. Tech companies have evolved the concept of the “directly responsible individual” (DRI): something that government strives not to identify. Without a DRI, no one can be blamed. Notice: “About 10 days after having the original idea, we launched.

The phrase “tech companies have evolved” is key here: evolution is built into the nature of private companies, because the badly managed ones die. One good thing about the nonprofit grant system is that a sufficiently dysfunctional nonprofit will also die, and grant making offers a feedback loop, however tenuous. Universities, though, rarely die. Do they reform? Some of the statements are grimly comical, like: “For example, SalivaDirect, the highly successful spit test from Yale University, was not able to get timely funding from its own School of Public Health, even though Yale has an endowment of over $30 billion.” So while I’ve been critical of government, and the authors are implicitly as well, universities don’t come out looking good either.

The authors report:

“We found it interesting that relatively few organizations contributed to Fast Grants. The project seemed a bit weird and individuals seemed much more willing to take the ‘risk’. (That said, a few institutions did contribute substantial amounts, and we’re very grateful to those that did.)”

I’m not aware of any large foundations that have attempted anything similar, although some likely have, and I don’t know about them. Most grant funding comes from the federal government and, because of the federal government’s sheer size, will for the foreseeable future. Foundations and corporate giving sources have their place—and it’s an important place, as Fast Grants demonstrates—but, barring some kind of major change, we’re unlikely to ever see such sources surpass government grants. The authors say: “[T]here are probably too few smart administrators in mainstream institutions trusted with flexible budgets that can be rapidly allocated without triggering significant red tape or committee-driven consensus.” They’re right.

If you’re interested in the behavior of institutions during the pandemic—which is to say, institutional failure during the pandemic—Michael Lewis’s book The Premonition: A Pandemic Story is excellent. Most government institutions were and perhaps are too used to “business as usual” to respond to business not as usual. FQHCs reacted better than most parts of government, but were hobbled by the usual problems of conflicting information and lack of access to personal protection equipment (PPE) in the early stages of the pandemic.

I’m unaware of any comprehensive accounting of the CDC’s actions or lack thereof during the pandemic, especially one that names names. Most of us know the CDC failed, but not the specifics of the organization’s internal workings. Fast Grants was and is an effort to compensate for government failures and slowness.

In non-emergency situations, science funding can work somewhat well. The Department of Energy’s ARPA-E programs have, going back for more than a decade, accelerated the transition towards low-carbon energy solutions (and we’ve written a lot of ARPA-E grants and SBIRs): but making those decisions slowly won’t kill hundreds of thousands of people, and leave millions hospitalized.

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